How are we to understand the fundamental social, political, ethical, and theological conflicts that divide us as Americans today? Why are discussions and debates so vitriolic and seemingly without resolution? Are our heated arguments only grounded in our upbringing, moral interpretations, political affiliations, constitutional assumptions, and religious backgrounds, or is something more fundamental at stake? Can they only be resolved at the voting booth, in the courts and on the streets? Does the church have an opportunity to open new ways to make our conflicts more fruitful?
In my own attempt to struggle with these questions I have found that a book published sixty years ago by Paul Tillich, former Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, provides a perspective of power, justice, and love that opens new avenues for us as individuals, and for churches, as we try to participate in the life of a nation in an election year that appears to be lurching towards a very uncertain and frightening future.
The Proper Order of Three Essential Marks
In his classic study of the three basic elements that determine the nature and structure of individual relationships, social ethics, and the connection of human beings, God, Love, Power, and Justice, Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications (Oxford, 1960), Tillich argues that they can only have value and effectiveness if they are united rather than conflicted, and if they are in the correct sequence.
The three are united if they are understood in the proper order of importance. They are one if they are understood in relation to the ground of their existence, if they are manifested in human life through the love, justice and power of God, through the one who is the ultimate reality, the “really real”, “the ground and abyss of everything that is real.” They can be in conflict if power is not exercised with self-giving love of God in Jesus Christ and results in emotion rather than commitment. They can be opposed if power overrules justice and results in oppression, tyranny and arbitrariness. If they are exercised without reference to the Creator God one may rule out the other two: love becomes libido, sentimentality, selfishness, or narcissism, justice is replaced by inflexible tradition and ideology or strict constitutional interpretation, and power is used only for the satisfaction of a leader, dictatorship, profit or the promotion of national pride (“America first”?)
The Situation Today
Today, Tillich’s analysis is particularly valuable in helping us understand where we stand in relation to politics, social ethics, and perhaps to theology and the policies in some churches. Even a casual reference to the title of his book illustrates how often the order he proposes of love, power and justice have been changed to power, justice and love ( if the last two matter at all) have been reversed. It also helps us see the threat that this rearranging of the priorities presents to the church or the nation if the last two are weakened or nullified by a greedy and unethical grasp for the first. As Tillich sees it, power politics separates power from justice and leads to compulsion.
Power without love and justice leads to self-centered boasting and corruption.
It can encourage the violation of the rights of others and damages basic human dignity. By itself, power can engender indifference to the proven dangers of climate change, and eco-justice is ignored in favor of power politics, unscientific policies, profit, and a disregard of our responsibilities to God’s good creation. Power alone can lead to harm, pain, and even death for those who are poor or powerless. Without justice, power may ignore fairness, forgiveness, and creative judgment, second chances or mercy. Without justice it can refuse cooperation, compromise, or understanding of opposing viewpoints. Power is abusive without justice, and justice is unjust if the love implicit in it is ignored because of abstract theories of law, ideology, statutes or class privilege. Love transcends the other two and cannot be added to them without fundamentally changing them. In all cases love comes first because it is the basis of the ground of being, the existence and nature of God and our own fundamental identity as those who are created by the power of God. It is one of the primary gifts of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
At this time of conflict and theological and political bitterness it is hard to imagine the uniting of love, power, and justice in ways that they work together and balance one another. Although the church is not perfect and cannot bring about the Kingdom by its own actions, it is what Tillich calls “the fragmentary anticipation” that can help visualize and illustrate what God’s will really is for the world.
The church and other organizations must demand the continuing interaction of all three, with love as the transcending power, so that as we strive to understand who God is and who we really are, we may be delivered from what Tillich calls “vague talk, idealism, and cynicism.”
It is possible and necessary, of course, to apply Tillich’s fundamental understanding of love, power, and justice to our work as Christians in the electoral process during the next few weeks and the way we vote. We are obligated to consider the way any candidate balances power, love, and justice before we mail in our ballots, pull the lever, or mark the right boxes.