The Public Witness of Good Works: Lutheran Impulses for Political Ethics: Part III

3. The politics of good works and contemporary political ethics
[1] Now that we have given careful attention to Luther’s thought, I would like to explore its possible implications for contemporary political theory. The first step is an analysis of the relationship of good works to a) the theory of the new beginning in the political theory of republicanism and b) to the original position in the theoretical framework of liberalism. (3.1) This entails attention to the ambivalence of vocation (calling) for political theory. I will then ask what could be the systematic place of the ethics of good works in the categories of political theory. (3.2).

3.1 Impulses of politics of good works for political theory
[2] One of the major questions in political ethics today is how the figure of the citizen may arise within the contexts of individualisation, global governance, and anonymous global forces. How do people become citizens in more than name only? What is the place and the story of this becoming, and what is its institutional side? What belongs to the transformation of the human being into the citizen? How do people come to turn towards their neighbors in justice? I cannot answer all these questions, but I will try to look at a specific aspect common to all of them, namely the ethical situation in which political action originates. I will also explore how this can be guided and safeguarded by the political institutions.

[3] These questions arise as modernity continuously strips politics from questions of the good life and substantial justice and reduces it to questions of administration and just procedures. Since Hobbes politics has increasingly been based on contractual theories instead of personal encounters and designed more and more as contractually based production of political communities. [1] While politics since the time of Aristotle orbited around the question of felicity and the good life, those questions have been shifted into the realm of utopia, and many modern utopias have lost their power in the course of the proceduralization of politics, (so Habermas and others). [2] According to Hannah Arendt, this transformation has widely shorn politics from genuine political action. Although there is suddenly a politics for everything, political action, common new beginning and cooperation are rarely found. Efforts have been made to regain political action as “governance,” that is, realizing political power especially via a focus on creating new institutions (international and also non-governmental). These efforts have attempted to regain political power to solve the problems that arise from globalisation and from the power drain of national states.

[4] Hannah Arendt’s republican idea diverges from these attempts in the idea that genuine political action responds to more than non-political forces. According to Arendt, political action must be bound to the cognition of a res publica discerned in the new beginning that contradicts the course of things. Arendt hence poses Plato’s provocative question to modern politics by asking whether politics is still connected to cognition of truth – even if that lies only in the facticity of contradiction. The similarity and differences between Hannah Arendt’s republican idea of the new beginning and of cooperation and Luther’s understanding of the initiative and cooperation of good works are worth exploring. We will do so with Arendt’s notions about the origins of the new beginning in politics.

[5] According to Arendt, birth grants each person the capability to start something new. Each person is an initium, someone who can take initiative and begin something new. [3] To take action means, for Arendt, to give an answer to natality as the fundamental condition of the human existence. Arendt holds that every birth interrupts the infinite causal chain of necessities and gives rise to new, freeborn action. Action as new beginning is hence the realisation of every the person’s natality. Please note that the novelty comes into the world via natality, not from the world.

[6] The faculty to act on account of natality refers everybody to others and creates a political animal. For Arendt, to act always means to act together. The necessity of social reference from birth means humans cannot act freely on their own terms, or against each other, but only in cooperation. Through this necessarily corporate action emerges what Arendt calls ‘power.” Power is always the power of citizens who co-operate and it is to be understood as strictly political and bound to the new, corporate action. Arendt’s understanding of power is directed against any understanding of “power” as arising from the assets or physical capacities that are already there somehow. These forms of factual power are not the medium of free common action among equal citizens, but of violence. When action is based on the factual and arbitrary distribution of capacities, people will not actualize the free commencement of their birth in political action. Without the faculty to start anew, to commence and to stop, life would be nothing but a process of hastening toward decay and death. Although every the person has to die, he does not live to die, but to start something new. Two forms of speech correspond to natality as the ontological presupposition of political action: “forgiving” and “promising.” Both of these express a common and shared power:”forgiving” as the faculty to make factual deeds undone and “promising” as the faculty to regulate and control the processes that human beings unleash. [4]

[7] Via this account, grounded in natality, Hannah Arendt has placed elements of the new, of occurrence, and of hope right in the middle of political ethics. It thereby closes the gap between the two realms of action – the vita activa (action) and the vita passiva (occurrence) that has been established by the political theory of modernity. Arendt talks about the “miracle” of natality, which brings a new beginning into a world of blind processes and makes free and new political action possible. This is, indeed, the condition for the possibility of faith and hope. [5]

[8] In contrast Luther holds that good works of citizenship happen whenever God takes command among his people, whenever they act in the awareness of and trust in God’s company toward the need of their neighbors. If Luther is right that good works originate in the freedom that comes from such faith and that the figure of the citizen lives on a justice that he receives from the living God, then this raises tough questions for Hannah Arendt’s conception. By describing political action as realisation of a human condition, birth, Arendt cuts it off from the social narrative in which people find the res publica. By focussing on natality as the condition of the possibility of freedom, Arendt denies the human being a freedom rooted in an external liberating action. For Arendt, natality is a factum in the Kantian sense, not a life form of becoming. Luther insists, however, that through their political activity and by turning towards their neighbor people find themselves in a narrative in which they become transformed externally and become freed from the human condition. According to Luther, citizenship is not a response to a human condition that is cut off from its narrative with other people and God, but is a response to the calling to co-operate with others in God’s worldly regiment.

3.1.2 The origin of citizenship in political liberalism and the ethical situation of good works
[9] How do the members of political communities become aware that they are called to act politically, and that they should not leave politics to “the professionals.” The proceduralization and formalisation of modern politics cannot conceal the need for substantial justice and for an answer to the question “whose justice” is at stake. It poses many provocative questions. Among them are these: who is going to give justice to those who yearn for it? Where are the political institutions that regard themselves as mediums of such justice? Who will become free to act politically, to co-operate, to make a new start, and to join in common action? Who calls them? What if our political institutions suffocated good and just works instead of enhancing and promulgating them? It would be horrifying to imagine that the message that calls people to be free and to see where they may co-operate – namely the iustitia civilis – would stop reaching them!

[10] In the political liberalism of Rawls the discernment of the res publica is not induced by calling, but by the public use of reason. [6] Rawls would hold that an external calling needs too many premises to work as a political concept in modernity. Moreover, Rawls wants Liberalism to be political and searches for a concept of justice that everybody by virtue of reason shares. According to Rawls, the public use of reason lets people discover justice as fairness. This discovery is the origin of the citizen. It is put to the test of reason in the thought experiment of the original position with a veil of ignorance about each person’s place in society and the distribution of natural assets and abilities. Note that Rawls sets out to clarify the origins of citizenship in a thought experiment about just procedures, where he hopes to hear a call of reason purified from all experience. We see here a political theory working from the “factum” of public reason. Fairness, which Rawls conceives of in his famous two principles of justice, is the medium in which the citizen turns to his neighbor and to his fellow citizen. But it is a medium that has no origins other than the application of formal rationality based on a thought experiment. It originates in the moral person, not in external calling, and presupposes a well-ordered society in which public reason is both possible and applied. For Rawls, justice as fairness is the reasonable “vocation” and substance of citizenship.

[11] This is the citizen who, though present on the political stage, stays deeply alone with himself, formally encountering his fellow citizens only on the basis of a public rationality. Note that whatever could be just or good for others besides fair procedures, and could enter the life of the moral person with the other in his corporeality, must stand the test of fairness. The advantages of such a conception and the reality of such practice within liberal societies are easy to see. The exchange of citizens does not depend on their inclinations or moods, or on their moral capacities. The emergence of free and equal citizens and their encounter is bound to political institutions as the medium of justice as fairness. Fairness relates to institutions and shall be guaranteed through just procedures and fairness is the end of political justice. In this conception, though, the question remains open whether the economy of justice can work with such premises. Is there not also a need for the public practice of justice that exceeds formalized encounters and procedures? Yes! Much justice that is practiced in liberal societies is based on other forms of justice than fairness. Are direct help, saving justice and merciful care not issues of genuine public relevance? Yes! Although one may hold that the good works of citizens can be called “fair” in a Rawlsian sense, they do not originate in fairness principles. They originate in a more promising justice. How then can the fullness of humane justice be part of the public figure of the citizen? How substantial and rich can be the justice that happens via political institutions, such as citizenship? This Rawls cannot answer.

[12] Politics, especially when based on fair procedures, lives on a rich ethos of citizenship that cannot be made possible by formal legitimacy and just procedures only. An invisible hand cannot guarantee the felicity of citizens who act upon the sensus communis of fair procedures. At some point political ethics needs an initial articulation of justice that induces a political life that sees the needs of others. Politics cannot expect and care for less than fairness, but it may expect more, namely good works. They are the promise that underlies institutions and so must explicitly be stated if the institutions are not to sink into indifference. A well-ordered society and its ordering institutions need good works to be set toward doing the right, and to be repeatedly called to the practice of justice. Luther’s political ethics argues that it is essential to focus on the visible hands, the initiatives, cooperation, justice, care and freedom that citizens practice in order to prevent the res publica from being reduced to administration. Good works contradict where justice has been turned into procedures and they bring institutions back to life. There is a need for the public witness of good works to stimulate just procedures. What can be called a res publica in the full sense of the word is discerned in the interaction of just, institutionalized procedures and cooperative, incipient action.

[13] Where political institutions have assumed the shape of just procedures, as often is the case in liberal constitutional states, there is the explicit need for an institution in which good works originate, in which the call to do good works and the promise that undergirds political institutions is heard and experienced. Insofar as this call is to be heard on the level of the “state” we may talk about the public witness of the Church as institution.

3.1.3 The political theory of good works and the role of the church
[14] What then is the place of the church given this understanding of citizenship as a call to do good works and to discern the kind of freedom that cannot itself be proceduralized?

[15] First, we may call citizenship the institution through which people are able to turn towards their neighbor in justice. And vice versa: What can be called a political good work must stand the test of having the political mandate of citizenship. Is a particular person called to do a good work within the institution of citizenship, or does he set himself into the alleged position to be called to do something good? The theological ethics of good works has to be tied to the institution of citizenship, while the political institutions are challenged by the presence of that call to good works with the question of whether they themselves are acting as mediums to articulate and emphatic justice in the political realm. Such institutions will bear the promise that they are not only there for procedural justice, but also may become instruments of an “exceeding righteousness,” that initiates humane political action where before there have been simply places of anonymous procedures.

[16] What if the goal of politics was understood as not explicitly to make the world a better place, but to become an instrument of the arrival of good works for those who are in need of them? What we may call good in the political sense has to relate to political institutions. But what happens politically when people are doing good things? It has not yet been sufficiently discussed in how far public life lives on the accomplishment of good works. While the controversy about the role of the good within political ethics has been raging, a language for the politics of good works is still to be found. The implicit question here is: Does anything happen of political importance when people are simply doing good works rather than seeking the goal of making the world a better place? The answer is yes.

[17] Good works serve as necessary impulses for substantial public life by binding civil procedures to the tangible human being with his or her needs. Further, good works keep law and public life oriented towards the justice that is found on the agenda of the ethical situation. In this understanding of political ethics any ethical situation, however small the number of participants may be, is a political situation and it is not a private question whether people receive justice. As a result, citizens who do good works publicly disclose a creative action to which they find themselves called as witnesses. (Remember that “good works” here mean mitigating suffering, need, poverty, injustice and discrimination, and making peace by promoting forgiveness, and so forth.) Further, the institutional bond of good works also has a limiting function: Good works do not make the world a “better place,” but they do help to preserve creaturely life, and prevent politics from becoming mere administration. Similarly, good works themselves help to keep the task of politics defined. In the light of good works, politics can be relieved of utopian strategies of world improvement. Moreover this political ethic does not rest on the presupposition of a strong moral subject. It bears a logic of advent rather than of motivation. The call to do good works is external, and presuppositionless in the moral sense. But it takes public witness to discern that those who do good works are the instruments of an “exceeding righteousness.” The institutional bonds of good works themselves have to become explicit, where the ethical situation lacks the language. All of this is the contribution of an understanding of a political ethic of good works. It follows from the mandate of the Church as institution, and of each member of the Church as citizen and witness in the political realm.

[18] But what if the message that people are free to do good works remains unheard? What if the church does not live up to her task? Is this theory dependent on the faithfulness of the church? No, somehow, through all the church’s failure, the message comes through, again and again, and against all human resistance. God’s command succeeds wherever people turn towards each other in justice. God raises co-operators wherever appropriate.

[19] In one of the loci classici of the ethics of good works, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10), moral presuppositions, motivation, rational choice or inclinations of the Samaritan are not necessary for this action to be considered a good work. His good work is presuppositionless. It does not depend on his moral capacity or religious affiliation, but it happens as the Samaritan is called by the misery of his neighbor. It is the story of his becoming a citizen, the neighbor of the one who fell among robbers. He is seen as the instrument of God’s mercy for a fallen person, and as citizen who can (and has to) rely on other institutions like the innkeeper to co-operate in caring for the other (Lk 10:35). In that story, the Samaritan does not witness to his own moral goodness, he does not make the good work he does his work. His witness to the goodness of God is only implicit. Rather, it takes Jesus to articulate how the Samaritan exemplifies God’s good will for humankind, and that his work fulfils the torah. In doing what he does, the Samaritan follows God’s commandment, and embarks on a justice that God makes possible, all without explicit awareness. Still, the story needs the word of God to articulate a posteriori that the good work that happened bears the signature of God. This is why the story of Mary and Martha follows suit, which is about listening to the word of God (Lk 10:39).

[20] The point is that the call to do good works, to become a citizen, remains external; it is not rooted in any institution within this world, not even in the Church. This is the limitation of the church, that Christians are just as surprised as any other people by the reality of the freedom and justice in which good works are done. Somehow there will always be a Samaritan who comes along and is called to citizenship. The Church comes to life wherever people come to see that God is in the regiment and praise God’s goodness. It is the exemplary place on earth where people are explicitly called to live with God in Christ, in the fullness of God’s justice for humankind. That the Church takes shape as of an institution itself witnesses to the need of the person for articulate justice. She is an institution with a promise, different to the promise that the political institutions bear. It is the promise that in the medium of the Church and its practices, people are becoming the new creatures of God’s word. Becoming such creatures, they are called both to rest in God and to be free for the ethical situation, encountering the other to witness God’s justice in society.

[21] As has frequently been noted, public life does not only live on just procedures, although they are widely understood as the condition sine qua non of political ethics. However, the procedural concept of justice as legal framework provokes the question of the material contents of political action, which in turn, has stimulated the development of richer accounts of morality and of moral language within politics. Some of those accounts have brought the moral self and its striving for the good back into the focus of political ethics. [7] This move has made political Liberalism and so-called “communitarianism” seem incompatible. How might the political ethics of good works with its rich account of citizenship focused on direct justice relate to these “incompatible” conceptions of political ethics? There are many good reasons for applying formal concepts of morality to public issues and the political ethics of good works does not eschew them or procedural conceptions of ethics. Rather, it helps to ask what the role and the promise of political institutions is.

3.2.1 The political ethics of the good work, civic society and utopianism
[22] Institutions, like citizenship, remain the medium through which the res publica is discerned and practiced. Civil society keeps politics from becoming a mere administration, and witnesses to the hope that an “exceeding righteousness” is found in cooperation and political initiative. At the same time the good works of citizens witness to the limitation of the “exceeding righteousness” to interaction. Good works cannot be made subject to a political program that plans to meliorate the world. They are bound to interaction, and happen vis-à-vis the other insofar as they display how political action must be guided by cognition of how the other appears in his need. Hence good works challenge any far-ranging political program with the question whether it stays close enough to the human being in its particularity. This means a fundamental critique of utopianism, the attempt to step by step meliorize the world instead of doing something particular and defined good.

3.2.2 The political ethics of good works and discourse theory
[23] Citizenship and civil society are the institutions in which contradiction arises and this includes within the form of public good works. Such contradiction confronts political institutions with the ever new quest for the res publica, and with their function to become the medium of this quest. It is not sufficient to fulfil this task by simply holding discourses about the res publica, as Habermas suggests. The politics of good works does not criticize discourse for its insistence that politics relates to cognition, but for its hope that this cognition arises through discourse only, as if truth would show up if only we talked extensively enough. The cognition necessary to guide political action also needs an origin in the call of the other to co-operate with him, to do something for him, to go with him, to forgive him, to shelter him and to grant him peace. Good works may accompany the mere reciprocity of communicative action, but they can also mean its interruption. They are witness to the “exceeding righteousness” that is discerned from the medium of cooperative action and the ethos of citizenship. It is a justice that can be grasped because it is already prepared.

3.2.3 The political ethics of good works, governance, and republicanism
[24] The call to citizenship includes the reality of justice. The citizen’s witness to the presence of justice among humankind thus limits politics but likewise helps tie politics to reality. The question about how people come to discern the reality of justice alongside the need of their neighbor is a fundamentally political matter. Thus the question: How far is politics still bound to the cognition of reality, not as we conceive of it, but as it presents itself to us? The politics of good works thus places the question of the vita passiva right in the middle of the vita activa. It assesses in what story politics is placed, and asks how this story is related to the political institutions. Do those who exert power have an external mandate for what they are doing, or do they put themselves into the regiment? Hence there can be no power of one person over others, as the politics of dominion of Max Weber claims, but only power as interaction between humans or as a mandate to do something for others, as Hannah Arendt says.

[25] For this reason there is a strong affinity between the ethics of good works and republican political theory. Both share a staunch criticism directed against the political theory of governance, insofar as governance means exerting one’s will against the will of others. The public witness of the citizen entails that no person can be the master of others. This is a witness to the first commandment, that nobody shall rule the hearts of human beings other than God alone. Hence politics cannot prescribe what people shall call good. In the witness to the first commandment it can, however, care for the institutions in which people expect the good and from which they should receive the good.

3.2.4 Conclusion: The political ethics of good works
[26] As we saw above, God’s commandments are either explicit or implicit in the cries for help and justice. These cries call human beings into the status politicus of the citizen as an original position that is neither constructed nor hypothetical. It is a position that is real, like God’s justice is real in the word. In this original position people are freed from the laws of self-assertion and selfishness and free to see the asymmetry between the abundance of God’s justice and the need of their neighbor. In this way Luther answers the age-old question of political ethics: How can one gain power to rule with reference to God’s regiment as the origin of political initiative? While political theory has been wondering how political action can be initiated, especially over against mere administration, Luther has an answer. He claims that politics starts with humans being set into a promising political status of being called from a self-centered into a political life form to become the instruments of God’s justice. The political figure, the citizen, is no superman. He may not even be a particularly good person, but is someone who leaves the judgement over good and bad to God. Moreover, he is the person who discovers true humaneness “beyond good and evil.” This state of humanity beyond good and evil is the original position of the public witness of good works. The citizen is there for others, and in this he finds true humankind.

[27] Luther’s citizens encounter the full reality of society without despair, seeing through the veil of injustice and violence how close justice and peace are. In the light of God’s commandments people awake to see how thin the membrane between humanity and justice really is. It is always waiting to be broken open by those who see the need of their neighbor in the light of hope and who turn towards the neighbor in justice. The citizen is thus a witness to a justice that does not stem from humans, but is prepared for them to do. The citizen enters the political arena on account of the promise that peace and reconciliation are real, because they come along with God’s real presence. The citizen is called to act for others in order to witness to God’s will and patience that humanity may go on. This is why the citizen does not lose his heart on the res publica. The citizen has heard a political message and experienced a political life with which he enters the political arena in order to do justice. It is a vocation.

[28] This vocational understanding of citizenship has its own “original position,” but one where the matter of justice is already decided-in God’s command. Faith is the place where cognition and deeds meet-just as God and the person meet in Christ, without merging, but by living together. This communicatio idiomatum of truth and ethics initiates the “renewal of the mind” (Rom 12:2) that arises from the call to do good works. The question how this renewal becomes possible is the centre of Luther’s ethics, and it answers political ethics question about a new beginning or the initiative and the initiation of cooperative action. The strong presupposition guiding this notion is that justice is not subject to the vita activa, but something the citizen receives and hands on. Doing justice thus lives on the reception of justice, just as the reception of justice is genuinely followed by doing it. Justice is something humans receive and discern while handing it on to others.

[29] The decisive question of political initiation also finds its answer in a manner that no secular political theory can. In God’s call human actors start anew because they are free to act for others, to see and soothe their need, to turn towards them in justice. But, as we have seen, this call is a double one. It is just like the double commandment (Mk 12:29-31 par.) and the double conversion–the conversion to God and the conversion to the neighbor. Neither call can be merged with the other, but both rest on God’s initiative.

End Notes

[1] See Hannah Arendt, Vita activa oder Vom tätigen Leben, München 122001 [The Human Condition (1958)].
[2] See Jürgen Habermas: ‘Die Krise des Wohlfahrtsstaates und die Erschöpfung utopischer Energien,” in: ders. Die neue Unübersichtlichkeit, Kleine Politische Schriften V, Frankfurt/Main 1985, 141-163.
[3] Hannah Arendt, Vita activa, 215. For a debate with Hannah Arendt see Patricia Bowen-Moore, Hannah Arendt’s Philosophy of Natality, Basingstoke 1989. For a critique of Hannah Arendt’s essentialism see: Seyla Benhabib, Hannah Arendt. Die melancholische Denkerin der Moderne, Hamburg 1998.
[4] Arendt, Vita, 315.
[5] Arendt, Vita, 317.
[6] See John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971.
[7] Cf. Charles Taylor: The Sources of the Self.