“maximum possible freedom without the corresponding risks”

I haven’t been writing much lately (obviously, as the silence here indicates), for a variety of life reasons, but I have been doing a ton of reading. I am nearing the end of my year long read through of a large part of Stanley Hauerwas’ bibliography. Accordingly, over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing here quite a bit that has caught my eye and stirred me from that reading, especially from Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence, which I just recently finished. I have a lot to draw out from it, both as Excerpts and in extended thoughts. I know my readers may tire of hearing me respond to Hauerwas, but that is where my head (and my theology) largely is these days, and I do it out of a great debt of gratitude to Stanley and his work and the path it has set me on.

This passage from the introduction Performing the Faith is where I want to start, because I think it does a really good job of diagnosing much of our cultural malaise. Its all the more meaningful to remember that these words were written nearly two decades ago, because they still ring so true today. (Emphasis all mine.)

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Dimbleby Lecture (2002) interestingly calls attention to the challenge punishment presents for those living in societies like modern England. His observations about punishment follow his account of the loss of politics in what he calls the emerging “market states.” According to Williams, such states are now servants of global capitalism, which means that they are unable to be the focus for conversations necessary to discover goods in common. Rather, market states derive their legitimacy by trying to provide insurance to voters who seek the maximum possible freedom without the corresponding risks. Such states push “politics towards a consumerist model, with the state as the guarantor of ‘purchasing power’, it raises short-term expectations. By raising short-term expectations, it invites instability, reactive administration, rule by opinion poll and pressure.”

Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence, pages 27-28.

We live in a world of market states, and no where is this more true than right here in America, the very nation that has led the charge to change our conception of all communities and relationships to one predicated first and foremost on marketplace values. We are conditioned to understand social interactions as taking place between a consumer and a seller; much of our social energy goes into determining which of these roles we are in whenever we interact with another person, another institution, or another state. Our politics have largely become a consumer-producer relationship, with us as voters expecting that we should receive some immediate tangible benefit for our votes or political support, rather than recognizing the long game that democracy really is at any level.1

And so, our politics have become characterized by “instability, reactive administration, and rule by opinion poll and pressure.” One need only look as far as the previous presidential administration to see these traits most blatantly, but they have been a part of our political culture for much longer than the last four years, and they continue on today in the Biden years. This isn’t either a random or an inevitable outcome. We’ve made choices as a people – or, at the very least, allowed those in power to make choices on our behalf with very little pushback – to get to this point, because we mostly want “the maximum possible freedom without the corresponding risks.” In other words, we want to have our cake and eat it too; we want to do whatever it is we want to do right now, and we don’t want to be reminded that there are consequences to our actions, consequences that affect those less fortunate than us, and consequences that determine the future of our world.

So I take these words as a reminder: politics is not a market transaction. We shouldn’t treat it as such. Politics are the language we speak together as a community to determine how we can live together. We’ve allowed it to become much less like a town meeting, and much more like speaking to a used car salesman. This is the wages of market states, of the rule of capitalism and liberalism and the attendant need within those systems to destroy any shared story or memories about who and why we are. The goal of our political arrangements has to be more than just “freedom.” We need a bigger story we tell about who we are and what we are doing here. Part of what I’m exploring in reading and writing about Hauerwas right now is how we as Christians do in fact have a better story to tell – and how it isn’t a story about how to rule the world directly. I look forward to exploring those themes here.


1 Please note I’m not making the standard conservative political claim that voters are being “bought” in order to benefit one party or another. This is a larger, system-wide critique of how we understand politics to work.

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