Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Evil and the Politics of Hope

Marc LiVecche


By Marc LiVecche
September 20, 2013

On August 11, 2013, Jean Bethke Elshtain passed away. Elshtain was a leading public intellectual at the University of Chicago, where she held a rather unusual joint appointment in both the divinity school and the political science department. One of Elshtain’s greatest legacies was her intellectual commitment to bringing God into the discussion of politics. Elshtain participated in various events with the Center for Public Justice over the years and references to her work and ideas have appeared frequently in CPJ’s publications. Over the coming weeks, Capital Commentary will be running a series of reflections on Elshtain’s work and legacy. This is the first installment in the series.

Last week, our nation observed the twelfth anniversary of the events of September 11th, 2011. In the immediate wake of “the terrible anniversary,” as one commentator described it, it is altogether fitting that we begin a series of reflections on the work of Jean Bethke Elshtain. The events of September 11th loomed large in Elshtain’s moral imagination. Much of her work at the intersection of theological and political ethics found its deepest expression in her reflections on that horror, which encompassed so much else that loomed large for her: considerations of goodness and evil, heroism, judgment, force, justice, responsibility, guilt, loss, finitude, tragedy, punishment, and mercy. For her, it was the kind of event that takes us right back to the beginning: to Creation and the Creator and the kind of creatures we were crafted to be – free to love God and to love one another. But that freedom means we are at liberty to say no to God and to turn away, and turn away we have. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and He saw that it was good. And it was good. But it all went to hell from there.

These facts must never be forgotten. For Elshtain, there was simply no substitute for facts. “If we get our descriptions of events wrong,” she insisted, “our analyses and our ethics will be wrong too.” Much of Elshtain’s work belabored the need to get as full and accurate an accounting of the facts of events like September 11th as possible. This was, in part, because she knew that reality is hard to grasp at the best of times. The necessary components include reality itself, our experience of reality, and our self-description of our experience of reality. When we consider our partial knowledge, the limits of our subjectivity, and the decimation that sin wreaks on our ability to know anything at all, it’s small wonder we often get things wrong.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, Elshtain believed one upshot was a certain clarification in this muddled world of facts. “Now we are reminded,” she commented, drawing on the thought of Augustine, “what governments are for.” Because none of the goods that human beings cherish can flourish without civic peace and basic security, she believed that government should prevent the uncontested growth of evil. The goods Elshtain had in mind are those quotidian joys, “Moms and dads raising their children, men and women going to work, citizens of a great city making their way on streets and subways, ordinary people buying airplane tickets in order to visit the grandkids in California, men and women en route to transact business with colleagues in other cities, the faithful attending their churches, synagogues and mosques without fear.” God has charged our public officials to maintain these goods, but they cannot do so if they are incapable of making basic distinctions between good and evil. Politics disappears when moral reasoning is absent.

Elshtain understood that political power untethered from morality tends toward opportunism, expanding itself simply for the sake of itself and not toward the appropriate ends of right and justice that such power is meant to serve. Political responsibility means taking moral responsibility into account so that it becomes a part of the landscape we assess prior to action. Sovereignty, in Elshtain’s vision, is not an absolutist concentration of power exempt from moral scrutiny or judgment. Rather, it is inseparable from the notion that ruling authority is a form of responsibility. To the very end, Elshtain defied anyone to render an ethics-free understanding of responsibility.

Likewise, if politics is approached as a form of responsibility, then one must avoid utopian idealism. Because consequences must be taken into account, Elshtain insisted that there was no place for either that heartless Kantian simplicity that sees no difficulty in navigating the problems of international politics or the Machiavellian impulse that dismisses such problems as non-existent. In place, rather, is that more difficult path which willingly views the problems of international politics as perplexing, complex, and hard to master. She reasoned that our world is so disarranged that principles clash, that there may well be exceptions to the principles in practice – not as abandonment of these principles, but as temporary suspension in deference to other principles.

However difficult, Elshtain found a basis for hope in this Augustinian approach to realist political reasoning. As a theological virtue, hope allows us a path between jaundiced cynicism and sentimental utopianism. Political life is never the ultimate life. It is, in Augustine’s limning of the two cities, always only penultimate. Because matter matters, we should be concerned about the terms of life. But it does not matter so much that we trample over those who get in the way of our messianic schemes as we try to drag the eschaton into the present day. Elshtain believed that this Christian tension between the real world and the ideal keeps our shoulders firmly set to those projects that help us to prevent the worst from happening and to do good where we can.

- Marc LiVecche is a PhD candidate in ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Until her death, Jean Bethke Elshtain supervised his dissertation work exploring the just war tradition and moral injury. He lives in Chicago with his wife and their two children. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”