Liberty, Equality and Human Community

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Since the 18th century the three great political values have been liberty, equality and human community.  They are sometimes thought of only in secular terms.  In fact they have deep Christian roots and there is a distinctive Christian understanding of what they imply for our society.

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Liberty, Equality and Human Community


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth
Gresham Professor of Divinity


The programme behind the French revolution of 1789 was based onLiberté,Egalité, Fraternité. These three ideas have been the driving force behind political developments in the West ever since the 17th century and are still a potent force in the world today. It is often assumed that these are secular ideas, ideas which have sometimes seemed to work against cherished Christian principles. I hope to show that they have a firm Christian grounding, and that the Christian faith has important insights to contribute to their proper understanding.



The concept of liberty has many aspects, but its first and most fundamental sense is that we human beings are capable of free, rational choice, and that God respects the choices we make. Our freedom to choose may be much more circumscribed that we think because of our genetic makeup and early formation. There is also the age-old philosophical problem of determinism and free-will, which is beyond the scope of this lecture. Nevertheless, that we are in some profound sense able  consciously to shape our future is integral to what it means to be a moral being and, from a Christian point of view, what it means to be made in the image of God. No less important, however, is the seriousness with which God takes our choices, and the respect Jesus showed for them, as revealed for example in the story of the temptations in the wilderness. There is a famous scene in Dostoevsky's great novel The Brothers Karamzov when Christ returns to earth and confronts the grand inquisitor. The Grand Inquisitor, far from being apologetic for the horrors carried out in the name of Christ turns on Christ and accuses him of treating human beings as free, when in fact this freedom was too great a burden for them. So, as he said,

'We have corrected your great work and have based it on miracle, mystery, and authority. And men rejoiced that they were once more led like sheep and that the  terrible gift which had brought them so much suffering had at least been lifted from their hearts'. [1]

This fundamental freedom is one which we can exercise however constricted our outward circumstances might be. It belongs to the dignity of human beings that even when unjustly imprisoned, our spirit is free, and we can think thoughts and develop attitudes that defy our captors and raise us above them.

My theme, however, is not this fundamental freedom, about which much could be said, not least on how it relates to our liberty in Christ as expressed in the well know line of a prayer 'In thy service is perfect freedom.'  My concern here is freedom as a political idea. However a question does arise about the relationship, if any, between this fundamental freedom we have as human beings and the various political freedoms we value. After all, it would be possible to say that if we have this fundamental freedom of the spirit even in prison, of what consequence are political freedoms? Is there any connection between them? I believe there is. For if we respect the freedom to choose of other human beings, we will also value enlarging their freedom of choice. Young children only have very limited options open to them. They have to conform to their families' norms. They have to go to school. As they grow up their freedom to choose is widened out, so that parents will let them choose which career to follow and which person to marry. The freedom which God gives to us, and respects, is not less than that which a parent gives to her adult child. As the psalmist puts it: Thou hast not shut me up into the hand of the enemy: but hast set my feet in a large room. ( Psalm 31, 9)

Now issues obviously arise about how large this room ought to be; about how widely the range of choices open to us should  be extended or constricted. There are a range of issues on which government now takes action to reduce the choices we have; smoking in public rooms is the obvious one, but there are many others concerning alcohol, drugs and, increasingly, food. But in general we think that it is a mark of a mature person that they can cope with a wide range of choices, and that we ought to respect people's ability to make the right ones. Libertarians, of course, put all their emphasis on leaving people free, whether they are social libertarians, thinking of the choices we make on social issues, or economic libertarians, who champion an unrestricted free market of goods and services.

The first freedom to be fought for in the 17th century was freedom of religion; freedom to believe and practice the faith of ones choice.  In this country the struggle for religious freedom has been a long and painful one. It is also sobering for those who look to religions themselves to encourage tolerance, for the story is not so much one of enlightened religious people bringing about religious freedom for those with whom they disagreed, but too often religious tolerance coming about because of the pressure of political events and for political reasons. The last time religious passions erupted in violence in this country was in the civil war of the 17th century. There is a sense in which as a result of that war they blew themselves out. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660, followed by the so called glorious revolution of 1688 and then the Act of Toleration of 1689 which allowed Baptists and Presbyterians who were loyal to the crown to have their own places of worship, expressed an overwhelming sense that anything was better than a religious based conflict. Tolerance became a political necessity. It was a matter of profound conviction for some Christians like Milton and Locke, whom I will discuss in a moment, but it was political pragmatism that made it a reality. So it was with Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Peel the Prime Minister had opposed it and thought it was harmful, but he fought hard to obtain it because he believed that Civil War in Ireland would follow without it. Serious civil strife would ensue  if Daniel O'Connell, a Catholic, was not allowed to sit in the Parliament to which he had been elected  and this, he judged, would be worse than letting Catholics sit. So only gradually, element by element, have the disabilities of non-Anglicans been removed over the last three centuries and there is of course still the very complex and tangled question of the Monarch not being allowed to be or to marry a Catholic.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights says:

'Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.'

This right is expressed in similar words in a number of other key documents, such as the European Convention.

Sadly, though lip service is often paid to the UN declaration, and its provisions have been signed up to in separate covenants by many countries, there are still too many manifest gross violations of the right to religious freedom.

Although, as I have implied, it is possible to see this gradual progress towards freedom of religion as expressing  a desire  to prioritise civil peace above issues of religious truth, it is important to remember that at the fountain head of this stream for both Britain and the United States were John Milton and John Locke. Both put forward arguments on specifically Christian grounds, namely that genuine religious faith must be a matter of personal conviction, and has to be freely chosen, not coerced. A faith that is forced is not true faith. So a context in which people are genuinely free to choose their religion is fundamental to religious faith itself. Locke allows a distinction between a government's legitimate role in dealing with questions of material existence, where a degree of coercion may sometimes be necessary, and questions of belief in which coercion has absolutely no place. This has led to a distinction between the public and the private sphere, and the confinement of religion, for so many, to the personal, private and inner realm. But this distinction is problematical.  How can religion, which claims to offer truths of the utmost importance about life limit itself in that way? As is well known, Islam cannot see itself as so limited or confined in scope to the inner, private sphere. Sharia law embraces the whole of human life, political as well as private, material as well as spiritual. The God disclosed in the Hebrew scriptures is likewise concerned with the whole of human existence, a concern which is  expressed  in the Jewish Torah; and Christianity grew out of this soil. The papal encyclical Immortale Dei of Pope Leo XIII reads rather strangely today, but it is salutary to hear the words for they remind us that we cannot draw an absolute line between historic Christianity and Islam in this respect. The encyclical said:

'It is a sin in the state not to have care of religion... or out of the many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy, for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way in which He hath shown to be His will.'

According to one authoritative Catholic source a few decades ago 'no state is justified in supporting error or in according error the same recognition as truth', the truth referred to being embodied in the Catholic religion. The Roman Catholic church now puts things in a much more nuanced way, but on certain issues, which are regarded as right or wrong by Natural Law, such as abortion, they would still hold that the state has an absolute duty to reject error, however people might vote. Leaving that particular issue aside, however, all Christians  would now agree with John Locke's reasoning, that religious freedom is a requirement of genuine religion itself. Nevertheless, we still have to pay attention to the propensity of strongly held world views, of which religion is one manifestation, to act intolerantly in practice whatever they hold in theory. John Stuart Mill, after pointing out the argument of great thinkers in favour of religious tolerance, wrote:

'Yet so natural to mankind is intolerance in whatever they really care about that religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realized, except where religious indifference, which dislikes to have its peace disturbed by theological quarrels, has added its weight to the scale. In the minds of almost all religious persons, even in the most tolerant countries, the duty of tolerance is admitted with tacit reserves... Wherever the sentiment of the majority is still genuine and intense, it is found to have abated little of its claim to be obeyed'.[2]

Before we sigh and groan that the problem, as correctly seen by Mill, seems even worse than we initially imagined it, there are two other points to note briefly.

First, although I am talking about religion, what I say can apply to any world view, not just one based on a belief in the transcendent. Leaving aside Fascism, which had some pagan religious roots, the  most intolerant movements of the 20th century, were Russian and Chinese Marxism and the Chinese cultural revolution. The numbers killed then in the desire to achieve ideological conformity were far greater than those in any religious persecutions of the same century.

Secondly, is our much prized tolerance in the West really tolerance. - Tolerance, said G.K.Chesterton, is the virtue of those who do not believe anything. Then there are the probing  lines of W.B.Yeats in his poem 'The Second Coming':

            The best lack all conviction, while the worst
            Are full of passionate intensity

A character in one of Graham Greene's novels says:

'The church condemns violence, but it condemns indifference more harshly. Violence can be the expression of love, indifference never'. [3]

These quotations bear out what Mill said, namely that one major factor bringing about tolerance has been the decline in intensity of belief. It poses very sharply the question as to whether there can be a form of tolerance that is not simply the expression of indifference and unbelief?  Can there be a more deeply grounded tolerance, one which is in part the expression of a  passionate intensity of belief, of  profound conviction and love?

Although religious freedom is in some sense the most fundamental of all freedoms, there are many others that have been and continue to be crucial: freedom from slavery, feudalism, dictatorship, communism, colonialism, racism, economic imperialism, patriarchy, sexism and so on. Here as often as not we use the word liberty, to means freedom from some crippling restraint which is not of our choosing. In this sense freedom has been one of the rallying cries of peoples and nations. 'Cry Freedom' was the title of one well known book at the time of Apartheid, as it was the great theme of Solidarity in the Cold War.

It should be noted at this stage, that talk about freedom or liberty is more problematical than the language might suggest. For freedom can be a procedural freedom, as we might say that everyone is free to vote. But there is also the question of whether we have the freedom to realise our chosen goals, our capacity, or what Amartya Sen, our capability. For Sen, simply measuring people's estimate of their own happiness is not enough. What is no less important are their capabilities, their ability to achieve what they choose. This, as we shall see is not unrelated to the different ways in which we can also think about equality.

All these desired freedoms can be justified by the reason mentioned earlier. It belongs to our God given dignity as human beings that we are free to live our lives without being forced into certain courses of action against our wills, and that we have the scope and opportunity to strive for what we choose. According to Luke, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus went into the synagogue at Nazareth and read a passage from the prophet Isaiah.

            The spirit of the Lord is upon me
            Because he has anointed me;
            He has sent me to announce good news to the poor,
            To proclaim release for prisoners
            And recovery of sight to the blind;
            To let the broken victims go free,
            To proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.
                (Luke 4, 18-19)

Release and freedom are the keynotes of this passage and it is not surprising that liberation theology has been a major Christian perspective over the last 40 years. Now clearly many of the expressions of the desire for freedom that I have mentioned could also be championed on the basis of other values, equality for example, or a desire for human flourishing, and it is clear that, as we should expect there is much overlap.



There are of course many respects in which human beings are unequal. Most obviously  we are unequal in our natural endowments. Some people are intelligent, others less so; some are beautiful, some more ordinary; some are built to succeed at a particular sport, others  are physically clumsy; some are gifted artistically, others with IT, others in the ability to make good relationships. We need this variety of talents and abilities for society to function. What St Paul said about the body of Christ, that we need one another, is applicable to society as a whole. (1, Corinthians, 12)

However, that said, we are equal in the most fundamental and important sense. For we are all of equal worth and dignity as human beings. No one human being is of less value as a human being than any other. For a Christian this is grounded in the fact that we are all equally created, cherished, and redeemed by the one God. You do not have to be a Christian to believe that all human beings are of equal worth. Many people of very different beliefs share that conviction. But the religious underpinning of this belief would be expected  to strengthen it. In a family of orphans the children are conscious of belonging together and of every sibling being of value. In a family brought up by loving parents who, whilst recognizing the different talents and interests of their children, value each of them equally, one would expect that sense of belonging together in an equality of worth to be strengthened. So here, as in other areas, a secular perspective and a Christian one are not mutually exclusive. Rather, there is much overlap with, a Christian would say, some shared moral insight being enriched and deepened in a particular way by religious faith.[4]

The Christian church, for all the inequalities that it has encouraged or tolerated in practice, has never lost sight of this most fundament sense of all in which we are of equal worth and dignity in the eyes of God. It has always been quite clear that the rich are in danger of going to hell, and the poor have a good chance of going to heaven. The crucial question though is how far the church has seen the implications of this Christian conviction in terms of public policy.

A good example is slavery. In the New Testament it is clear that a shared Christian faith radically transformed the relative status of the slave and owner. Both were on an equal footing in the Eucharistic community and both were equally accountable to the one Master in heaven. (Colossians 4, 1) However, it is equally the case that at that time the church accepted the institutions of slavery rather than questioning it, or seeking to live out the implications of its belief in human equality in the social order. However, the Christian conviction of equality implanted some yeast which eventually started to change the whole body politic.

The struggle to end slavery was a long one and there is space to mention only two points. The first concerns Bartolomeo de las Casas.  Las Casas arrived in what we call the West Indies in 1502.  In 1511 another Dominican Antonio de Montesinos arrived on Hispaniola today's Haiti and Dominican Republic and preached a sermon to the Spanish settlers who were trying to enslave the indians.  'Are they not men? - Are you not bound to love them as yourselves?  In such a state as this, you can no more  be saved than the Turks'.  It is not difficult to imagine the fury this sermon aroused and the attempts which were made to get Montesinos silenced and expelled.  Las Casas heard this sermon. The implications took some time to sink in, but when they did he spent the whole of the rest of his life working against the enlavement of the Indians. The second example is the piece of pottery made for mass consumption by Wedgwood during the struggle against the African slave trade. It depicted a kneeling, shackled African reaching out his hands and pleading 'Am not I a man like you?' The issue in the 16th century and in the19th century was the recognition of other human beings as human beings, and therefore as those who were to be treated as such: as free citizens, not slaves.

This deep conviction about our fundamental equality has continued to ferment ever since the 17th century, Christian conviction joining forces with those who approach the issue from a progressive secular point of view. It has been worked out in terms of equal freedom to practice one's religion, already mentioned; equality before the law and equality of political franchise.

The basis of modern democracy is that one counts for one. No pocket boroughs, no disenfranchised citizens, not one law for the powerful and one for the weak.  The political  implications of this were spelt out in the Putney Debates in the 17th Century by Colonel Rainsborough:

'I think the poorest he in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he. Therefore every man that is to live under a government, ought first, by his own consent to put himself under that government. The poorest man in England is not at all bound to a government that he hath not had a vote to put himself under.'

The ferment of this has conviction has continued to bring about change, as expressed for example in the American Civil Rights movement culminating, we could say, with the election of President Obama, and in the ending of Apartheid in South Africa. It has been to the fore in recent legislation concerning gay and lesbian people. And it continues for example in the continuing struggle to obtain true equality for women in the work place, and in obtaining proper access for disabled people to all the goods and services of society. A new Equalities bill is even now on its way through parliament. So equality has been absolutely fundamental to the whole development of our civic and social existence as a society. My point is both that this is rightly a crucially important conviction and, with the utmost respect to secularists who champion it, it is one that is deeply rooted in Christian faith, a faith which has played its fair share in ensuring that that its implications are worked out in every aspect of society.

But has it been? And can it be? There is one area where there is still gross and growing inequality, and that is in the economic sphere. Why is this so? Here we go back to the triad of this lecture, liberty, equality and human community.

The movers behind the French Revolution of 1789 believed thatliberté,egalité,fraternité went together, and that if you achieved one, the others would begin to follow. They thought that if only the old feudal inequalities were done away with, there would be equality, and from this there would flow genuine freedom of choice and true human community. The old order kept people in their place, and severely limited their choice. With choice opened up, it was assumed that everyone would prosper. In fact, as we know, this has happened to only a limited extent. Opening up choice for everyone has in fact led to inequalities of many different kinds, most obviously of course in the continuing divisions between the rich and poor as reflected so starkly in figures on  health and mortality. Men living in certain parts of Glasgow have a life expectancy that is ten years less than people living in the South East of England, and what is particularly shocking is that over the last 30 years this gap has widened, not narrowed.

One result of what has actually happened in the economic sphere, is that today there an assumption  that choice and equality are essentially opposed to one another, and there has been a sharp polarization between those advocating policies offering more choice and those who stress state action to achieve greater equality. However, I believe that it is a mistake to think that these values of choice and equality are always mutually incompatible. A market economy depends on the value of equality as it does on freedom of choice. For in stressing choice, we are stressing the fact that every individual consumer is equally free to choose. As Ronald Dworkin has put it 'Under the special condition that people differ only in preferences for goods and activities, the market is more egalitarian than any alternative of comparable generality.'

The qualifying clause is, however, crucially important. People do not differ only in their preferences. They differ hugely in the opportunities open to them to take advantage of those preferences. So while I think it is important not to see choice and equality as mutually conflicting values, we have always to bear in mind the context in which people make their choices. As one of the greatest of all theorists of equality, R.H. Tawney once put it 'The existence of such opportunities in fact, and not merely in form, depends, not only upon an open road, but upon an equal start.' Or again, 'Equality of opportunity is fictitious without equality in the circumstances under which men have to develop and exercise their capacities.'

G.K. Chesterton one remarked  that the average Englishman was less interested in the equality of man than he was in the inequality of racehorses. I am not sure that is still true, and whilst there is no great support for a flat notion of equality people are offended by  great and growing inequalities. In particular at the moment there is a widespread sense of moral outrage against bankers who whilst being responsible for the near financial collapse of the banking system, resulting in millions being dispossessed of their homes and losing their jobs, have safeguarded their obscene bonuses and pensions. Not least of the ill effects of  such stark inequalities is that  this leads to a failure to achieve true human community, the third of the three values championed by the French revolutionaries.


Human Community

The French revolution saw Fraternity as the great goal to be achieved in human society. That word can strike people as gender loaded today, and an alternative, sorority, as equally so, hence my use of the phrase human community.

Since the enlightenment there has been one consistent fallacy, shared by both secularists and Christians, and that is an over individualistic understanding of what it is to be a human being. I accept that this has appeal.  When this takes shape as libertarianism it contains a powerful moral vision. Here for example is how Timothy Garton Ash puts it:

Liberals start from liberalism. I'm a liberal, so I start from liberalism-not in the parody version propagated by the American right, but liberalism properly understood as a quest for the greatest possible measure of individual freedom, compatible with freedom for others.

The overriding value is as he puts it 'The greatest possible measure of individual freedom'.  The problem with this view, whether as stated by someone like Garton Ash, or proponents of the free market, is not that they have no doctrine of society, but that they have a very weak one, one which does not do justice to the essentially social nature of human beings. The view of at least some of those who emphasise individual freedom in this way is that society is like a criss cross of well used paths. Each individual makes their own way, and the constant wear creates certain definite paths which they all eventually come to have in common.

But society is more than this. Mind is a social reality. We get talked into talking and doing that talking inside ourselves that we call thinking, though our relationships with other human persons. We are essentially inter-personal. We become persons in and through our relationships with other persons. So human community, first in the family and then in wide communities including the state is not simply an add-on to our nature, but an essential aspect of it. One way in which this has been expressed is in the catholic understanding of the state. This is not just seen as a result of and a remedy for the fall, but as something natural. It is natural for human beings to come together to share responsibility for the ordering of the common life.

The implications of this view is that the role of the government is not simply to maximize the liberty of its citizens, it is to act on behalf of the whole for the common good. This includes every aspect of policy, economic and social. This responsibility does not mean sitting light to the importance of individual freedom. On the contrary it is part of the good of society as a whole, and not only for the individuals within it, that individual freedom should be respected. But this is not the only value and not in all cases the overriding one.

It was suggested above that the concepts of both liberty and equality are complex. They carry a variety of meanings, and at the same time the two concepts are not as opposed as some like to think. In reality most people will accept that both liberty, in some sense, and equality, in some sense is important, and that in practice when we are thinking about what is the right course of action we are unlikely to make one value of such importance that it overrides all others. Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justiceparticularly wishes to reject the idea of a unifocal approach. He discusses this not only in relation to the particular value of liberty, mentioned above, but in relation to his example of the three flute players that recurs throughout the book. There is only one flute, but three people who have a claim upon it. One person is a superb flautist and they would make best use of the flute. Another person is very deprived, and a flute would be the only possession they had which enabled them to enjoy themselves. A third person is the one who actually made the flute. To whom should the flute belong? Sen's argument is that a convincing rational case can be made out for all three, and it is not possible to have a unifocal perspective which rules out the other two. However, and this is another point he wishes to stress, this does not mean a state of moral paralysis. For whereas some philosophers in recent years have stressed the incommensurability of values, he argues that real differences do not in fact stop us making considered rational and moral judgements. Oranges and apples are indeed different, but that does not stop us choosing between them, perhaps a different choice on different occasions. So it is that when we are thinking of the needs of the most deprived people in the world we can make a rational, moral decision about how best to help them, which will involve taking into account the kind of rational justification put forward by all three claimants to the flute, not just one.[5]

For those of a tidy mind, this rejection of a unifocal  approach to justice can be frustrating. However, from a Christian point of view it has two great advantages. First, if it is God, and God alone, who is absolute, then we ought to be wary of placing any one principle, philosophical or political in that position. The fact that we have to make a judgement in relation to a number of different moral considerations, taking them all into account, is a feature of being a finite, limited being. Secondly, Sen's approach is to prioritise the voices of the marginalized, and to let them be heard in the political debate. He rejects a purely theoretical approach to justice, as in the theory of John Rawls, and argues that justice is about taking everyone into account, especially the powerless, in continuing rational public debate about how the range of human needs can be met. This again accords wonderfully well with a Christian understanding of what it means to be part of the human community as a whole. It also chimes in with the practice of the best aid agencies, like Christian Aid, who like to work in and through partners in the countries that need help, so that the needs responded to are the needs stated by those who are needy. In terms of the picture of the three claimants to the one flute, those who are seeking help will be in the best position at any one time to set the priorities.

Another very interesting approach to issues of justice and human community has just come from the 2009 Reith Lecturer, Michael Sandel.[6] Like Sen, he takes John Rawls very seriously and believes he has put forward the most convincing case for equality that we have yet had. John Rawls is famous for posing the question about what political principles  we would choose if none of us knew what position, or what advantages or disadvantages, we would have when we were born. We have to devise a society 'under a veil of ignorance', about whether we would be a slave or a millionaire. On the basis of a 'hypothetical consent' he argues that first, we would all agree that we would want the basis freedoms we now subscribe to, and secondly, whilst recognizing that people would be born into wealth and others into poverty, such inequalities would only be justified in so far as they helped the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. If we all got together, before we were born, to agree on some basic principles, he argues that these two are the only ones to which everyone would consent. Whilst Sandel, like Sen goes some of the way with Rawls, he argues in relation to this and all modern political philosophies that they try to dodge the question about the nature of the good, and the good life. In a series of vivid examples, he shows that we cannot in fact do this. We cannot just leave people to choose  their own life style, or leave the market to its own momentum. Both social libertarianism and market libertarianism leave unanswered questions. For issues of value and fairness keep obtruding themselves, and that raises the question of what we as a society regard as good. Like Sen, he acknowledges there will be no immediate agreement about this, hence the appeal of libertarian views which leave it to the individual, but in fact what we need to do is engage with one another in what the common good of society consists.

The New Testament sets out a vision of the Christian community as a sign of true society. For it is humanity reconstituted round Jesus, and as such is a new humanity, both a sign and a pledge of what is coming to be. This community is one that is grounded in and motivated by love. Of course it has its manifest failures. But you cannot read the letters of St Paul without grasping the true nature of the church as a community of mutual giving and receiving. It is a community of different gifts and talents in which all are equally valued in making a contribution to the harmonious working of the whole body, the body of Christ.

In society as a whole however people are held together not just by love but by coercion. Love alone is not enough. Sadly we need the police and armies. The tension this involves in applying the ethical teaching of Jesus to society as a whole is apparent in a number of areas but here my theme is the relationship between the church as true human community and the wider society in which it is set. I have already said it is meant to be a sign of true society and a pledge of what humanity under God will one day come to be. But meanwhile it is also meant to be transformative of that wider society in its public as well as its individual dimension. This means that individual Christians should care about the transformation of the wider society in which they are set in all its aspects, not least in its political structures, institutions and policies. This is one of the ways in which the community of the Kingdom of God taught by Jesus bears upon the world, keeping us alert to impossible possibilities.

One good example of the way this works is the principle of taxation. Because we are what we are it is necessary to have a policy of taxation enforced by law. If people refuse to pay their taxes they can go to jail. But from the standpoint of the community of the Kingdom, taxes are a sign of a society that lives by mutual giving and receiving. They are not just about paying our fair share of the cost of the roads, the policy and the army. They express love. Take the position of people who are severely disabled, who cannot work and who have no support, financial or otherwise. In our best moments we would like to help them ourselves. But because it is not practical  simply to leave their support to individual initiative and because we do not always or even usually act on what we might decide to do in our best moments, we agree that such people should be supported by the state paid for through taxation. Seen in that way the taxes are an expression of self-knowledge, realism and loving concern. They are a sign of the Kingdom making a difference in the world as we know it.

Some theologians today, as in the past, have wanted to see the Christian community set apart from wider society with its own distinctive life and values which it brings to bear on that wider society only in radical difference and challenge. But in fact the Christian community and wider society, at least in the West, are much more closely bound up than that view would suggest and the boundaries between them are much harder to delineate. What this means in reality is that the progressive changes that have taken place since the enlightenment have been the result of action by both Christians and secularists. That is still the case today on a range of issues. It also means that the Christian community itself is still very much like the field of wheat and tares growing together that is suggested by one of the parables of Jesus. (Matthew 13, 24-30)

Christians therefore will properly support the role of government in acting for the common good, even sometimes when it limits individual choice. This has two major implications, one in social policy and the other in economic policy.

The modern libertarian view is that each individual has their own moral standards, and provided this does not lead them to harming others they should be left free to do what they want. This will result in a virtually total absence of censorship and the minimum of regulation. A good example is the view of Simon Jenkins that women should be free to sell their eggs for what they can get for them and men should similarly be free to sell their sperm, both activities being forbidden by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority at the moment. [7]

In contrast to this libertarian view it can be pointed out, as already argued, that we are social beings and it is right that the government should be concerned for the common good. Furthermore that common good will, as the word implies, have a moral dimension. Nothing in this life is morally neutral, certainly not the state. All its institutions will embody certain values, and these will be the result of that society's history and culture: and that history and culture will have been significantly shaped by its religion. Those values can and ought always to be questioned. Furthermore some societies, whose history has left a legacy of some barbaric practices based on twisted values, must be radically changed. But nevertheless, every society will quite rightly reflect a set of values and standards which may rightly reflect many of the values and standards of its individual  members, but which also stands apart from them with  an independent validity There is however,  a crucially important qualification, which is that in our society respect for individual freedom is a major value of our society itself. It will only be overridden with very good cause.

The other areas where the common good is a highly relevant value  are in relation to  economic and social policies. In a competitive world, and a highly competitive market economy, those most likely to succeed are those with resources behind them and who know how to make the system work to their own advantage. A market economy may be the most efficient way of ensuring the prosperity of everyone in the society, but it is inevitable that there will be those who lose out through no fault of their own; those who do not have the capacity to benefit from  the system; those whom market forces drive to the wall. If Government has a responsibility for the common good, this must include a responsibility for the well being of such people. In short it has a responsibility not just to enable the market to work, but to help people participate in it and make their way in it; and also to ensure that those who are genuinely incapable of doing so are properly supported.

This value of the common good understood in these inclusive terms is re-affirmed and undergirded by the concern which the New Testament urges Christians to have for the poor. Furthermore, in judging the rightness or wrongness of particular policies this will mean asking as a matter of priority what their effect is going to be on the most vulnerable members of society. There needs to be a proper Christian solidarity with  the marginalized, which asks questions about the effects of all national and international economic and political policies on them.[8]

In American  the richest 1% of the population own more than the combined wealth of the bottom 90% of American families, with, as we know, some 40 million people lacking any basic health care. In 1980 Chief Executive Officers of major US corporations were paid 42 times their workers earned. In 2007 they were paid 344 times the pay of the average worker. India now produces two million graduates a year and half the world's soft ware engineers, but nearly half of the women in the country remain illiterate.  You do not need to have what W.B.Yeats called a - leveling, rancerous, rational sort of mind... to worry about the effect of  this on human solidarity; our sense of belonging together in one human community.

As mentioned earlier, when the revolutionaries in France first coined the slogan, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or, as we would say today, human community, they thought that if only the only old, hierarcical inequalities were done away with and people were genuinely free to make their way in the world, this would bring about that much desired human community. Just the opposite has happened. Vast bonuses may or may not bring financial benefit all round, but what is their wider effect if the mass of people are filled with a sense of moral outrage? David Hare's play The Power of Yes is an analysis of the cause of the near collapse of the West's financial system. At the end the financier George Soros recalls a conversation with Alan Greenspan. Greenspan had said 'The benefits of the market are so great that you have to live with the price.' To this Soros had replied 'Yes, but Alan the people who end up paying the price are never the people who get the benefits.'[9]

Both liberty and equality are values that are deeply rooted in the Bible and the Christian view of what it is to be a human being, but they cannot be seen apart from the goal of true human community.



©The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, 5 November 2009



[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. David Magarshak, Penguin, 1958, p.301

[2] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Penguin, 1986, p. 67

[3] Graham Greene, The Comedians, Penguin, 1966, p.283

[4] This is one of the themes of Richard Harries, The Re-enchantment of Morality, SPCK, 2008

[5] Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, Allen Lane, 2009.

[6] Michael Sandel, Justice: What is the Right thing to do? Allen Lane, 2009

[7] Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 4 Feb 2009

[8] See Richard Harries, Is there a Gospel for the Rich?, Mowbray 1992


[9] David Hare, The Power of Yes, Faber and Faber, 2009, p.75/6ber and Faber, 2009, p.75/6

This event was on Thu, 05 Nov 2009

Lord Harries

The Rt Revd Lord Harries

Professor of Divinity

Professor the Rt Revd Lord Harries was the Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006. He was previously the Dean of King's College London, where he is now a Fellow and an Honorary Professor of Theology.

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