Lutheran Ethics and the Ambiguities of Power

Excerpted from: Piety, Politics, and Ethics: Reformation Studies in Honor of George Wolfgang Forell, Carter Lindberg, Editor (Copyright © 1984 by Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, Inc., Kirksville, Missouri) Used with Permission.

[1] Being asked to contribute to a Festschrift always presents one with the problem of relating one’s contribution to the opus of the individual being feted, especially so if one’s own area of scholarship is quite remote from the latter’s. This is certainly my problem in a Festschrift for George Forell. My original intention had been to write on some ethical implications of the sociology of knowledge, relating the experience of relativity, which lies at the core of that discipline, to the Lutheran understanding of the Christian as simul iustus et peccator. But a Festschrift is also, by its very nature, an invitation to reminiscence. I had to think back to the early 1950s, when my relationship to George Forell was new and very important to me. In this connection I recalled an essay I wrote in Spring 1952, exactly thirty years ago, on the question of political relevance. I reread it, in the rather shabby carbon copy I found in my files, and I was struck by a number of things – the timeliness of the same question today, the continuity between my thinking then and now, and the singular appropriateness of making this essay my contribution to this volume. I have always thought of George Forell as an anima naturaliter lutherana; this essay may serve as evidence that, it seems, I suffer from the same disability.

[2] The essay was not a term paper and, of course, it was never published (I was a 23-year old graduate student). I wrote it, as I recall, to get a few things straight in my own mind, and subsequently I discussed it with a few friends. What I felt I had to clarify for myself was how to respond morally to two events of that period, the Korean war and McCarthyism, both of which were much in the minds of everyone (this was also the year in which I became an American citizen, and the question of political responsibility was personally “relevant” both because of this, also because I was facing being drafted into the army – a most disagreeable event, which, however, did not occur until a year later). We now tend to look back to this period in American history as a simpler, perhaps healthier one. I’m not at all sure that this is an appropriate view. What impresses me rather is the continuity in the basic moral and political questions, despite all the intervening changes both in America and in the world at large. I find it personally consoling that the answers I gave for myself to these questions still satisfy me today (although, I would hope, I could now formulate both questions and answers with greater sophistication). In recent years I have found myself aligned on many political issues with the people now called “neoconservatives.” I’ve often been uncomfortable with this name, because it suggests that one had been something else before one arrived at a conservative position (most “neoconservatives” being, in Irving Kristol’s inimitable phrase, liberals who have been mugged by reality). This is not my case. Indeed, if I’m to be reproached it might be for having changed very little in my basic perceptions of political reality.

[3] What has changed since 1952, needless to say, is that reality. This past generation has seen a phenomenal decline in both the power and the self-confidence of the United States. The major churches in this country have fully participated in the latter change, both theologically and politically. This is obviously not the place to reiterate my own view of these developments (I have done so many times). Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, a Lutheran approach to political morality is more important today than it ever was, surrounded as we are by crusaders, ideologues and people with no awareness of the ambiguities of the social world.

[4] In the years since then, of course, much has changed for me too, in terms of my understanding of these issues. When I wrote this essay I was just beginning to understand the implications of the sociological theory I was then studying for the first time; it was only in the 1960s that I began to grasp the vast consequences of the perspective called the sociology of knowledge; the major consequence for ethics and for moral judgment is the “precarious vision” of relativity, making it ever so more difficult to make assured statements about right and wrong. I did not become personally involved in political activity of any kind until the late 1960s, when I became engaged in the anti-war movement. I have been politically active ever since, and this has certainly deepened my awareness of the inevitable ambiguities of power and of the moral agonies of “les mains sales.” And all my work as a sociologist since then has ever more indelibly impressed on my mind the fact that the actor in society must make choices despite a pervasive absence of reliable information (a fact that I have called the “postulate of ignorance”). This fact is particularly harrowing in the case of political actions, simply because there are such horrendous consequences flowing from many such actions. If one is to act at all, then, one must risk not only failure but moral condemnation. To realize this is, as it were, a secular replication of a central Lutheran experience.

[5] American religion today is rampant with arrogant moralisms. On the “right” we have such groups as Moral Majority, who, apparently untroubled by even a scintilla of doubt, want to impose on the rest of us their particular certitudes. On the “left” we have groups no less arrogant, no less moralistic, with their simplistic certitudes – be it about international relations in the nuclear age, about socialism and Third World revolution, or about the proper roles of the sexes. Despite their violent antagonisms, what all these groups have in common is a commitment to what Peter Viereck called “metapolitics” – an approach to politics in the expectation of redemption. None have learned the Lutheran lesson that the political world is not an order of grace, and can never be that before the coming of the Kingdom of God, and that, therefore, political actions are always ambiguous, embroiled in moral disasters and likely to produce unintended consequences of frequently terrifying sorts. The American prototype for this lesson is, or should be, the Temperance movement – which, along with the Prohibition era, created what we now know as organized crime in this country. The Moral Majority, which seeks a moral reintegration of American society, is well on the way to sparking an increasingly poisonous Kulturkampf. The feminist movement, in its quest for personal “liberation,” has left a trail of shattered psyches and broken homes across the society. The peace movement, it may plausibly be argued, is seriously endangering any realistic efforts toward mutual disarmament in our time. These statements, to be sure, are arguable. What is not arguable, I think, is the air of certitude with which political and moral messages are being propounded today. I believe that challenging these certitudes is a matter of the utmost importance if we are to survive as a democratic society (and perhaps, in the international situation, if we are to survive at all).

[6] One final comment: Of course it is not my intention to propose that one has to be a Lutheran in order to perceive and act realistically. I am proposing that a Lutheran conception of Christian ethics derives support from unexpected quarters. George Forell, for one, will not be surprised by such a proposition.

1. The Question

[7] About a year ago [in 1951] a pacifist, writing in a Protestant periodical in this country, raised the question of political relevance from the point of view of Christian morality. He discussed the moral implications of existential involvement in our present political situation, especially the argument frequently used against pacifists that their considerations are politically irrelevant and naive. His main concern, of course, was the problem for American Realpolitik in the struggle with international Communism, and the consequences of this struggle for American domestic and foreign policy. The writer came to the conclusion that political relevance today was identical with an abandonment of moral relevance; the only sincere course open to the Christian would, therefore, be a courageous withdrawal from the attitudes and actions bearing political relevance into an existence of Gandhian non-violent non-cooperation, presumably ending in the jails and prison camps on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

[8] The thesis of this paper is that this conception is not only politically irrelevant (which fact the pacifists are glad to concede), but based on an unrealistic understanding of political reality in general and our present political situation in particular; that, moreover, it is also a very dangerous abandonment of Christian responsibility. We agree, however, that this question is a moral one, and intend to approach it as such; the positivist idea that one can approach politics without moral presuppositions is, indeed, as naive as the pacifist idea that one must approach it from the point of view of the Sermon on the Mount. We shall base our approach on what we shall call the Lutheran and the Machiavellian principles, being fundamentally identical formulations (though starting from different frames of reference) of a certain understanding of political reality. In naming these principles Lutheran and Machiavellian we are not guided primarily by historical considerations, but are using these principles as ideal-type constructs. Nor do we feel that this understanding of political reality is dependent on a Christian existence; from a Christian point of view such an understanding is, perhaps, an expression of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer has called ‘irreligious Christianity,” a Christianity that understands that the incarnation means the end not only of mythology but of religion, that Christian existence is fundamentally and essentially “secular,” much more deeply than what usually goes under that name.

2. The Lutheran Principle: Political Reality is Not an Order of Grace but of World.

[9] We can see this fundamental principle of political secularism in clearer perspective by comparing it with the non-secular principles of medieval Catholicism and of modern political Messianism. In the Catholic understanding the political order bears the character of supernatural grace. It is one of many orders stretching hierarchically from the world of men towards the eternal. Grace is realized in the political order, which, like the Catholic universe as a whole, thus becomes sacramental. The approach to politics cannot, therefore, be secular, but must be religious both in theory and practice. Modern political Messianism also conceives of the political order as a realization of grace, a conception whose origins we can search for as far back as Franciscan radicalism and the Schwaermertum of sixteenth-century Germany (Thomas Müntzer), and whose basic character we find again and again in the twentieth century eschatologies ranging from Nazism to Communism. While the Catholic conception of political order is conservative, this conception is revolutionary; in the former, grace operates in a hierarchy whose structure is grounded in eternity, while in the latter grace operates as a dynamic principle of progress, “the march of God on earth.”

[10] When we speak here of grace, we do not only mean grace in the sense of Christian theology. In our sense we include that whole area of human existence that is turned towards ultimate, eternal realities, the area of freedom and wonder, in which man hopes to find his true self. The human condition being what it is, this area has never been one of complete possession but of yearning for such possession. In other words, when we speak of grace, we are also speaking of redemption and the hope of redemption. And when we speak here of world, we mean all those areas of human existence which we recognize as profane, subject to our rational control, not sharing in the nature of “mysterium tremendum.” In saying, therefore, that the political order does not have the character of grace but of world, the Lutheran principle eliminates all soteriological elements from politics. The political order is not and cannot be a vehicle of redemption. To make it so is idolatry, a fatal confusion of profane history with the hidden history of grace.

[11] If the Lutheran principle is secular it is also conservative. The purpose of the political order is not redemption, but the maintenance of such conditions of human life as make the search for redemption possible. In relation to ultimate human ends, therefore, politics plays a negative rather than a positive role. It does not bring grace but maintains the external conditions for grace by an order without which human life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Once the political order is no longer seen as a vehicle of redemption, it becomes unnecessary to conceive of political history in terms of progress, whether evolutionary or revolutionary. This, of course, does not imply a static conception of political phenomena, but rather a rejection of the metaphysical assertion (an assertion that has no empirical evidence to substantiate it) that political dynamics bears within it great purpose.

[12] It is also important to understand that the conservatism of the Lutheran principle will not lead to a defense of the status quo in every concrete political situation. Indeed, in a particular situation this principle may even lead to a revolutionary attitude, if the political order in this situation makes impossible a human life that is open towards grace. Real humanity (and that means a humanity that still has a memory of the eternal) is impossible without freedom. The Lutheran principle will always be in favor of widening and amplifying the minimum of freedom in any given situation, and of finding the meaning of freedom in new political, social, and economic situations. However, the Lutheran principle will always resist the thinking of this widening of freedom in terms of redemption, because it understands that redemption consists not in freedom as such, but in the turning towards grace which freedom makes possible and the realization of real humanity through grace. It will always be very suspicious of any conceptions of political progress and its bias will always be conservative.

[13] What is meant by conservative bias we can understand by looking at the marginal case in which (by whatever criteria) “all other things are equal” and in which one has to decide whether, since this is so, one wishes the political order to be preserved or to change. The conservative bias of the Lutheran principle will lead to the first choice, that of preservation. This marginal case is very important as a criterion of political theory, because, as an ideal-type situation, it helps us to see “where the spirits divide” between conservatism and progressivism.

[14] As the Lutheran principle understands it, the political order is part of a world which does not possess grace but is in need of it, yearns for it, as it were, remembers it. Seen in a Christian perspective, this is a world that has fallen into sin and stands under judgment. Seen in a non-Christian perspective, it is a world of tragic destiny and guilt, where men live always both in “splendor and misery.” It is only pride that imagines it to be possible to live in this world without guilt. Especially political reality, the arena of those most violent passions connected with the taste for power, bears a heavy burden of guilt. It is, therefore, impossible to act politically without incurring guilt. Not only are there no “just wars,” in the fond dream of a scholastic humanism, but it is hard to conceive of any political action that one would really like to call “just.” To act with political relevance means to get “les mains sales.” To reconcile this fact with a moral will is possible only in a pessimistic ethics that knows not only of freedom but also of bondage, and, consequently, of both judgment and forgiveness.

[15] Political action on the basis of the Lutheran principle is not likely to be a very enthusiastic affair. It will be realistic action, serious in the consciousness of responsibility. Like all realism it will also be of a certain sadness. It may come near to enthusiasm at times in concrete situations, where there are great possibilities of relevant action, but it will never allow itself to be swept away in an ecstasy of Messianic expectation in regard to any political future.

3. The Machiavellian Principle: Politics is Concerned with Manipulation of Power, Employing Techniques of Force and Fraud.

[16] The Machiavellian revolution in political theory has been that of understanding politics not as what should be but as what is. Machiavellianism is not a moral principle, but an operational one. It does not tell us that we should act in a certain way in any situation, only that insofar as we wish to manipulate power we must make use of force or fraud, or both. In this way it creates the distinction between moral and political relevance which was rightly seen by the pacifist writer mentioned above and with which this paper is concerned.

[17] The cleavage between what is and what should be (which, since we are moral beings, is generally what we would like to believe to be) is for us a very unpleasant truth to contemplate. This is why Machiavellianism has been identified with satanism, an image of leering evil. We strain to resist this image as one of ourselves and our society, and so prefer to attribute it to the one who presents it to us. In at least the sense that none of us like to see the world as grace-less as it really is, it is true that we are all by nature Catholics. It is certainly no accident that the historical appearance of Machiavellianism coincided with the breakdown in western consciousness of the Catholic universe of the hierarchy of grace.

[18] Those who conceive of the political order as one of grace cannot accept the distinction between moral and political relevance. They are faced with the alternatives of political irrelevance by retreating from the world and of political relevance based on self-deception, namely the self-deception that what is being done is not only politically relevant but morally just (Father Joseph). An approach to politics based on the Lutheran and Machiavellian principles, on the other hand, makes possible politically relevant action without self-deception. Such an approach is not likely to win the support of great masses, which generally prefer deception, but it can give to individuals that clarity of perception which leads to control.

[19] The Machiavellian principle may lead, and has led historically, to a Realpolitik which justifies all means by its ends, but this development does not lie in the principle (which is not a moral principle) but in a decline of moral integrity. The Machiavellian principle sets up the distinction between political and moral relevance, and the Lutheran principle tells us that our concrete political decisions will never be morally just because they will always take place in the world of men. We are faced, therefore, with a moral approach of the free conscience (“Freiheit eines Christenmenschen”), of an ethics based on choice in each concrete situation, in a word, with the kind of thing that horrifies all who can only think in terms of “ethical principles.”

[20] There will be questions concerning this moral approach. When do the means become such that they destroy the very ends for which they were intended? When do our Machiavellian means, which we thought were under our control, show themselves as in turn controlling us, so that we can no longer free ourselves from them? When can we only use certain means at the expense of losing all moral integrity in our personal existence? To sum up, where is the point at which our conscience constrains us to make the unMachiavellian leap into political irrelevance? This brings us again to a very important marginal case in our considerations, that point at which we freely choose political irrelevance (as our pacifist writer would have us do not only in the marginal situation but in the normal political situation as well) rather than continue using the means that make politically relevant action possible. We do not mean by this leap change in political direction (as, for instance, the change of a group of German officers in 1944 from cooperation with Hitler to underground resistance against him), but a leap out of political direction completely (as, for instance, the small group of German pacifists who refused military service knowing that they would be killed by the Nazis as a result). The possibility of the un-Machiavellian leap into political irrelevance (and, perhaps, politically irrelevant martyrdom) must remain an existential possibility for anyone approaching politics with the inner reserve elaborated in this paper. We realize, of course, that even such an un-Machiavellian leap will have political results (in this sense, it is altogether impossible to escape the political area), but it will cease to have political motivation on the part of the actor. If only such a point could be determined “by principle”! If one followed, for instance, a subjectivist ethics, whose supreme principle is the moral integrity of the acting person, we would have well-defined criteria to answer our question (an example of an extreme subjectivist ethics of this kind is the behavior of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Nazi concentration camps, where they could always b relied upon as reliable informants for the SS, because they would never anc under no circumstances tell a lie, whatever the results of telling the truth) Also, if one followed an objectivist ethics, whose moral criteria are at determined by the objective results of our actions, we would have a much easier time (as some of the apocalyptic figures of Arthur Koestler who readily sacrificed the last vestiges of inner integrity for what they thought would be the objective historical results of their actions). The ethics of the free con~ science, however, is neither subjectivist nor objectivist. It is realized in the concrete “between” of each historical situation, between subjectivity and objectivity, motivations and results. It has no criteria, except freedom turned towards grace. This approach is difficult, sometimes heavy to bear. Its difficulties make the sheltered certainty of a Catholic or a Communist or a Gandhian ethics seem very tempting. Yet it is an approach that makes impossible the arrogance of the man who rests securely in his rightness.

[21] Action on the basis of the Machiavellian principle will, in our understanding, coincide with action based on the Lutheran principle. It would appear that in order to use Machiavellian means without becoming morally destroyed by those means it is necessary to have one’s existential grounding in an area outside the political. Our approach makes possible political action without an existence of the “homo politicus,” it suggests a position “in politics, but not of politics,” vigorous involvement with yet a retention of inner reserve. If Machiavellian means are used in an existence that knows of no dimensions beyond the political, that is totally grounded in the political, the result is demonic. We are then faced with the terrifying spectacle of unleashed passions raging apocalyptically across the political arena, causing untold misery and destruction, as the Nazi and the Communist revolutions of our time have demonstrated with sufficient clarity.

4. Our Present Situation

[22] Our present political situation, with its tremendous implications for the future of mankind, is one in which clear-sighted realism is a requirement of survival itself. Such realism, we believe, can only lead to one result in terms of political action, that of vigorous struggle on the side of the free west against international Communism. In our time, there is no politically relevant choice between the relative freedom of western democracy and the absolute destruction of human dignity, freedom, and moral possibility of totalitarian Communism. In this situation, the un-Machiavellian leap into any of the several expressions of neutralism (be this neutralism expressed in pacifism, or an “ohne mich” European isolationism, or a mystic hope in the political wisdom of Indian foreign policy) is not only muddle-headed thinking, but a betrayal of moral responsibility. We shall find that in most cases the attitude of “the plague on both your houses,” with its illusions about the reality of both the eastern and western worlds, is a result of fear. We find it especially in those people who are afraid to think of Katyn because they cannot go beyond the fear of Florida lynching, who dare not think about Soviet slave-labor camps because they still tremble to think of Auschwitz. If one is consumed with the fear of fascism, one cannot afford to face the reality of Communism. This is why our emancipation into realism must start with our emancipation from paralyzing fear. The reality of the Communist world, when honestly investigated, is that of an all-powerful totalitarianism operating with calculated cruelty in a mass society within which human existence, as we understand it, becomes an impossibility. The reality of the western world, when honestly investigated, is that of a world of imperfections and monstrosities, sometimes of horrors as terrifying as those of the Communist world, yet a world in which there still exist institutions making possible a human existence in terms of freedom and hope for the future. To speak, therefore, as if we had to choose between two concentration-camp systems is a most dangerous distortion of reality. That such a danger exists may be true, but to speak of it as if it had already become reality is to destroy the very possibilities of fighting against this danger. This is why we feel that relevant political action in our present situation must be an all-out struggle on two fronts, both equally important from the point of view of relevance, both political and moral. The one front is the resistance against international Communism by the free nations, where necessary by armed force. The other front is the defense of freedom in the western world against those forces who, out of fear or malice, would take the occasion of the struggle with Communism to plunge the western world into an anti-Communist totalitarianism. The kind of neutralism advocated by our pacifist writer is a betrayal of freedom on both fronts.

[23] We reject pacifism in our situation as self-deception in regard to both the political situation and the moral possibilities in it. How far such self-deception can go can be seen, for instance, in the naive assumptions concerning Gandhian non-violence as being non-political and, therefore, without the taint of “les mains sales.” To clarify our approach even further, however, we must also explicitly reject the kind of Jacobinism that would speak of our present situation in terms of a crusade for democracy. Our approach to politics, based on the Lutheran and Machiavellian principles, makes Jacobinism impossible in both theory and practice. In theory, we cannot see history in the progressivist terms of French eighteenth-century thinking, nor can we accept the latter’s optimistic anthropology. We cannot see the French Revolution as an eschatological event or the American Republic as the New Jerusalem. In essence, this kind of Jacobinism, just like the ideologies of the extreme right and left, bears the character of what Peter Viereck has called “metapolitics,” that fatal mixture of religious expectations and political passions that has caused so much havoc in our century. Crusades in the name of democracy are as dangerous as all other military ventures of that appellation. Indeed, democracy as a political religion, rather than as an operational principle for the political order of human life, is to be rejected as emphatically as all other kinds of political Messianism. In practice, such Jacobinism in our situation is not only dangerous, because of its fondness for the conception of a “holy war,” but somewhat ridiculous, as becomes clear when one thinks of Spain or Yugoslavia. The conservative bias of our approach will think of democracy as related to ultimate human ends in negative rather than positive terms, just like its thinking about political order in general. In our time, we feel that democracy offers the best conditions for a human existence open to grace, but to identify democracy with grace is idolatry.

[24] Let us repeat: the point at which to start morally is the point of our fear. More than anything else it is fear that clouds our perception and paralyzes our possibilities of relevant action. Those who are so afraid of Communism that they remain silent about McCarthyism, and those who are so afraid of McCarthyism that they will not look at the reality of Russia, are equally incapable of relevant and effective political action in our time. And to repeat this also: to see in proper perspective the political reality of our time and to overcome our fears of it sufficiently so as to be able to act, it will be necessary to ground our existence in an area beyond the political, that area in which human life is touched by grace, which is also the area of Christian hope.