What follows is a quirky and idiosyncratic commentary on the relationship of 1 Corinthians 13 to the question of political freedom and authority. It is not my intention to deny or minimize in any way the existing and more conventional interpretations of this pivotal chapter of the Bible, but rather to add another layer of meaning to it. Additionally, this paper deals with the philosophical problem of the many and the one, showing how the biblical definition of love serves to resolve the contradictions present within human conceptions of the proper realm of both freedom and authority, opposing the ungodly extremes of both libertarianism and authoritarianism in favor of principled Christian republican virtue (meant in the nonpartisan “small r” sense, as will be plain).
Is there a contradiction between freedom and equality? Is it necessary to deny one in order to affirm the other? As both a patriotic American and a ferociously intellectual Christan, I believe there is no contradiction between the cherished ideals of my nation’s founding and the noble and timeless laws of scripture, however short our practice may fall of both the ideals of our nation and religious beliefs. On what grounds, therefore, may we find unity and harmony between the freedoms of the individual and the duties and responsibilities we owe to our family, community, congregation, and nation? In short, where do we find the grounds by which we neglect neither the rights of the one (namely, ourselves) and our obligations to the many (our neighbors around us). In the Christian worldview, such grounds can only spring from the divinely inspired Word of God.
Before we examine that ground, let us examine what is at stake in the question of the rights of the individual and our obligations towards others. There is great harm in extremes in both directions. If we neglect our social responsibilities towards others, and pursue some sort of Ayn Randian dream of libertarian freedom, we face the classic Latin American oscillation between anarchy and tyranny where a lack of social cohesion (resulting from the lack of social obligation) makes it impossible to find a genuine union on nondespotic (i.e. republican/democratic) grounds, only leaving a Mexican standoff of chaotic strife between rival regions or caudillos or the horrors of authoritarian rule by bloodthirsty Pinochet-style dictators. In the absence of social responsibility the only way that order can be maintained is through force or fraud, a savage “state of nature” where only the strong survive and everyone else is a victim of those more powerful or with larger gangs.
If we leave aside this unpleasant mental image, let us turn to the horrors of the subsuming of the one into the many. Without a proper respect for the freedom and rights of the individual, the collective serves as the only important identifying marker. Whether this collective is an ethnic, religious, class, gender, or any other sort of identity, the lack of individual freedom means the absence of individual accountability or any way of recognizing and respecting the rights of those who belong to other groups. Without a common identity as potential children created in the image of God and possessed of both free will and personal responsibility, as well as a larger identity shared with all other human beings (male and female, old and young, rich and poor, of all peoples and nations), there is no ability to prevent having one’s individuality subsumed in fratricidal conflict of the kind found during the Eastern Front of WWII, the simmering conflicts of Kashmir, the occupied territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, or Northern Ireland, the genocidal rage of Nazi Germany, the Bosnian nightmare, or the horrors of Rwanda.
Again, we see that extremes of neglecting the many and the one leave us prey either to tyrants or to the loss of the individual in sectarian and ethnic conflict. In both extremes the godly principle of lex rex is neglected because an impartial legal order under which all are accountable is missing. Bullies and tyrants respect only the law of force, and collectives deny the humanity of their rivals for power and glory. It is only in a society that respects the freedom of the individual but where those individuals are themselves an active part of the larger community where a constitutional order that is free and just can be found. What is it that provides both a recognition of the freedom of the individual and our obligations to others? What force is it that binds free and responsible people together in a larger whole with others of like mind, showing concern for the needs of others and also respecting the freedom of will and conscience that is the divine blessing of our inheritance as the future heirs of our Father in heaven? That force is love itself.
In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, answered the trick question of a lawyer by saying: ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” We might ask why this is the case? Why is it so important to love God and our neighbor (and all human beings are our neighbors). If we realize that a fundamental part of our identity is as part of the Kingdom of God, we also realize that we have a political identity that is beyond the individual and that includes us as fellow-citizens with all past, present, and future members of the family of God. Our family identity is a political identity, with citizenship obligations that include obeying the law of the land (namely, God’s laws) and also showing love and concern for our brethren and fellow-citizens, of whom we are a part of one body, but each with our own individual personality and functions. We cannot escape the tension between the many and one, but we can resolve that tension by a proper understanding of what Jesus means by love.
The fullest explanation within the scriptures about love can be found in 1 Corinthians 13. It is not the intention of this note to give a verse-by-verse commentary of this chapter, but rather to relate love with our political freedom and personal responsibilities to others by virtue of our political and familial identities. Though love has many meanings, perhaps too many, it has a relevance to our personal and political identities that is often unrecognized, and it is my intention to speak about obscure and neglected topics and not those matters which everyone already knows. It would nonetheless be helpful for the reader to follow the train of thought by having one’s Bible opened to 1 Corinthians 13 while following the examination below.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 opens with a comment that understanding tongues (languages), prophecy, an understanding of all mysteries and all knowledge, and enough faith to move mountains is entirely useless without love. How does this make sense from a political standpoint? All the money in the world can’t buy the United States love and respect in the world from other nations. Nor can it buy American citizens a functioning health or educational system. The ability to move mountains and make colossal dams is entirely useless in making Americans conscious of the risks of tampering with nature. Massive amounts of knowledge and the ability to speak and write instructions and laws in twenty-seven languages cannot make the people of California love each other or feel a part of the same political community, much less family. Without mutual love and respect our relations with others are either selfish and exploitative or uncaring and bureaucratic, lacking in humanity and justice. It is only love that makes life worth living.
The attributes of love that follow in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a require quotation: “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” In a political and familial aspect these qualities are particularly important in determining whether we (or others) are acting in a genuinely loving way or not.
Why does love suffer long and remain kind? Because love identifies with the suffering of others, feeling the pain of others as if it were their own, even the pain of those people who act unloving towards it. Why does love not envy? Because the blessings of one person are blessings for everyone in that family or community, because no one is to be selfish and greedy, but rather generous with the gifts God has given them. Why does love not parade itself? Because love is concerned about the well-being of all, rather than the pride and glory of the self, recognizing that we all share in each other’s happiness and sadness, glory and humiliation, and therefore love does not humiliate others or make them feel ashamed. Why is love not puffed up? Because love is outgoing concern rather than mere self-interest. The leavening of pride has no place with those who genuinely love. Why does love not behave rudely? Because love is filled with genuine respect for others, and that respect and outgoing concern circumscribes its behavior within appropriate boundaries. Why does love not seek its own? Because it seeks the well-being of others as well, never forgetting that it is part of a greater whole (but also having its needs met by a larger whole seeking after its interests as well). Why is love not provoked? Because love engages in mutual respect and the pursuit of win-win opportunities rather than merely competitive win-loss struggles. Why does love seek no evil? Because it obeys God and follows His righteous commandments. Why does love not rejoice in iniquity, but rather in the truth? Because love is of God, who cannot lie, rather than of Satan the father of lies. And so on, and so on.
Why will prophecy fail eventually? Because eventually there will be nothing left to foretell? Why will knowledge fail? Because eventually God will give us access to all knowledge and understanding, leaving no advantage to those with quicker minds here and now. Why will love never fail? Because we will always be fellow-citizens in the Jerusalem above, and fellow brethren in the Family of God. There will never be a time when we will not have a familial and political identity with our fellow believers. That union and harmony and identity is eternal, without end.
When is it, with regards to family and politics, that we put away cihldish things? When we enter into adulthood, ready to take upon the full family and political responsibilities of adulthood, weighing and balancing, judging, voting and balloting, leading and ruling. The sort of love that Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13 is not a pietistic love concerned only with the self and our personal relationship with God (though clearly that is a concern), but is rather an outgoing love that is deeply concerned about other people also. Godly love requires godly behavior towards a godly community that nourishes and cares for its citizens.
What does that mean for us? For one, it means that we need to show outgoing concern for others and not be self-absorbed. It also means, though, that we must find and build godly communities that care for the individual rather than selfishly seeking only what believers can give to it. It is easy to see what a godly community does not do–it is not tyrannical with a rigid hierarchy unaccountable to God’s law and unresponsive to the needs of its people. It does not exploit or abuse or terrorize others. Nonetheless, it is a lot harder to build a godly community, whether a family, a business, a neighborhood, a congregation, or a nation. That is the task set before us, though. Do we have enough love for others to fulfill our charge?