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

A Vision Anchored in Hope

Kristen Deede Johnson


(Editor: This is the sixth in a dialogue series of contributions on the nature of pluralism in American politics.) 

As we come to the end of this six-part discussion on pluralism and American political life, it is worth pausing to reflect on the contributions made to the discussion in previous weeks. In his framework-setting essay, Gideon Strauss noted that our society is composed of individuals and groups that hold deeply divergent foundational convictions. How is a political society to respond to these differences?

The answer suggested by Strauss, Paul Brink and David Koysis is principled pluralism, in which a state recognizes the depth of divergence within its midst and allocates enough freedom of conscience, worship, and practice that different communities are able to flourish. Woven into their perspectives is acknowledgement of structural pluralism, based in the conviction that society is rightly composed of a variety of social organizations and spheres, each of which has guiding norms that need to be recognized by the political realm. Koysis adds a third category of ethnic or cultural pluralism to the discussion.

A primary conversation partner for both Brink and Koysis is Ashley Woodiwiss, whose early essay in this series charged proponents of political pluralism with being overly hopeful that a way exists to harmonize the differences in our midst. Drawing on agonistic political thought, Woodiwiss believes that difference is an intractable component of political life. Instead of trying to find a false unity that does not acknowledge the conflictual nature of reality, agonists believe we should create political structures that are ever more embracing of difference. Woodiwiss has incorporated this perspective into a Christian framework, drawing on Augustine’s understanding of the disorder and lust for domination that result from human sinfulness. His agonistic convictions make him wary of grand visions of harmony or justice; instead he calls for small acts done with an awareness of the conflictual nature of the earthly city in which those acts are performed.

I, like Woodiwiss, have learned to think differently about the nature of our common political life from agonistics. And yet I do not find the presuppositions of agonists as amenable to Christian understandings of reality as Woodiwiss does, nor do most agonists themselves. I agree with Joel Hunter, who in his contribution suggests that the brokenness of this world has to be placed within the context of Christian hope. And yet I worry when Hunter goes on to declare that Christian hope resides in “the rediscovery of the Christian’s radical responsibility for the presence of the kingdom.” This places our hope for justice in our fallen human hands rather than in Jesus Christ.

For Augustine, justice is so connected to Christ that he is unsure that it can be realized in the earthly city. Justice happens when all the goods of the earthly city are rightly ordered in relation to God (so that, for example, power is used for the greater good of love). These goods have become so disordered by the fall that they can only be reordered in and through Jesus Christ, which means that the location of true justice is the Heavenly City rather than the earthly one.

Augustine would not be surprised about the deeply divergent convictions within American political life that our principled pluralists acknowledge, and yet he would suggest that peace is a commonly shared love within the earthly city. Christians are called to receive this earthly peace as a gift from God and to foster it for the sake of their neighbor, even as they remember to limit their expectations for the earthly city in light of the peace and justice that can only be realized in the Heavenly City.

Combining awareness of the inevitable diversity of political life with hope for the peace that can be shared across our differences, this perspective allows the grand vision of the justice of God to inform Christian understandings of collective life in this age while cautioning against unrealizable dreams for that justice to be realized here and now. This is admittedly a more limited vision than some have offered, more expectant than others. In its favor let me simply say that this vision is reliant on the hope of Christ, a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul in times of conflict and in times of peace.

—Kristen Deede Johnson, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Hope College

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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.”