For many years, I taught in the American Studies Program on Capitol Hill, an interdisciplinary semester of study focused on nurturing in undergraduates the vision and virtues required to take up vocations in the public square. Formed by a deeply wrought understanding of Christian responsibility, the curriculum centred upon an exploration of the themes of truth, justice, shalom, and hope, set amidst concrete, contemporary policy debates ranging from welfare reform to Middle East politics.
If one issue perennially reared its head among the students it was this: I used to believe that doing justice was possible. In fact, that brought me to Washington. But now I see that hope is naïve: it just isn’t going to happen. It was as if we were always living and learning within the tension created by the Machiavellian temptation, which lurks for anyone who dares to care about the polis, viz. “Please grow up, will you? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God? That’s for the young and the idealistic. If you are going to make it here in the city, you will have to leave that innocence behind.”
And so, semester-by-semester I would reflect on the hardwon and, perhaps, even, hard-bitten wisdom of Lord Bismarck: If you want to respect sausage and law, then don’t watch either being made. There is a truthfulness about the aphorism that is more than just realpolitik. Bismarck offers a window into the reality of political life in a fallen world, even though his story is not the whole story.
I know of no one who has honestly tried to be politically faithful—in the general vocation of God’s people to be the salt and light of the Kingdom in every sphere of human concern nor in the more specific occupation of politics, whether as elected official or in some other manifestation of public service—who has not navigated through the shoals of the conflicting calls of the city of God and the city of man. The calling implicit to that quest requires that we ponder the sausage-making with our eyes wide open, and still choose to act with a responsibility marked by love. I do not know of any challenge that is more difficult than to really know the world, and still choose to love it.
It is one thing to come to a capital city like Washington with great hopes of change. If I work hard, then it will be different—at least in a year or two or, at the most, maybe five. But putting one’s shoulders to the wheel of history more often than not produces a bruise to one’s spirit, not the advent of the Kingdom in all its fullness.
Augustine understood this a long time ago. Wrestling with the ruination of the Roman Empire—what we now know as its decline and fall—he searched Scripture for a way of understanding his own moment. How do the people of God remain faithful to the vision of the Kingdom, when evil and injustice seem to rule, when there is more heartache than happiness in being citizens set in time and space, in finite, fallen cities and states? The now-but-not-yet of the Kingdom was his bread and- butter and, therefore, he gave us proximate justice as a way of finding our way amidst the ruins of political economies anywhere and everywhere.
Proximate justice realizes that something is better than nothing. It allows us to make peace with some justice, some mercy, all the while realizing that it will only be in the new heaven and new earth that we find all our longings finally fulfilled, that we will see all of God’s demands finally met. It is only then and there we will see all of the conditions for human flourishing finally in place, socially, economically, and politically.
Taken with permission from an article on “Proximate Justice” in Comment Magazine.
Steve Garber directs the Washington Institute. He lives worships and works in Virginia and is the author of The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior.