Monthly Archives: October 2013

Augustine and the Government Shutdown: The Politics of Imperfection and Compromise

I am currently leading a study abroad semester and have had the privilege of teaching St. Augustine to students during the portion of our trip when we are living in Rome.  Last week I gave an exam that had the following multiple choice question:

  1. _____ Augustine believes that justice is:
    1. Perfect right ordering under God’s authority
    2. Available in perfection only in the world to come
    3. Attainable in relative terms in this present life
    4. Can only be attained by struggle in the present life
    5. All of the above
    6. None of the above

Setting aside that I reduced Augustine to multiple choice questions, I hope students come to appreciate (among other things) Augustine’s tempered expectations for political justice. Even earnest striving can only produce an imperfect earthly justice–producing a peace that Augustine describes as a “compromise between human wills about the things relevant to mortal life.”

The same week I read a Facebook post by Steve Garber, defending the virtues of “proximate justice” in the face of the government shutdown. Although Augustine is not mentioned, Steve’s reflections are deeply Augustinian. His words point to the import of compromise and offer wisdom worth sharing:

“Making peace with proximate justice?

Several years ago I was asked by a magazine editor to write an essay on the vocation of politics. I thought about it over a summer, and offered “Making Peace with Proximate Justice.” Having watched Washington for a long time, for many years teaching political responsibility to undergraduates on Capitol Hill, the vision of “something” seems more honest than every version of all-or-nothing. When anything happens in the political world that is more just than not, it is because there is some peace made with proximate justice.

Flying back into Washington this afternoon after days in Boston and Indianapolis, seeing the standoff between the partisan voices of the political left and right, I have thought of proximate justice one more time. Both sides are eager to play their blame-games, shouting out to all who will hear, “Of course I’m right! And of course they’re wrong!” Neither side is willing to give the other anything.

I don’t think that moderation is itself a good, or even that political moderation is in and of itself a worthy ambition. Being luke-warm has its own curses. But wiser folk have always understood that politics is the art of the possible, especially when the work at hand is politically serious. If one can bully his way because he can, that kind of arrogance will eventually come back to bite. If one side doesn’t really give a rip what the other side thinks, certain as they are that their vision and their vision alone is right, it is a dead end for everyone. Both sides show a self-righteousness that has become self-deception, unable to see their own frailties and flaws.

Does health care matter? For everyone everywhere. Are health care costs outrageous? For everyone everywhere. And healthcare is only one face of the showdown about the budget and the economics of our common life. Finding a way forward that addresses our true needs as a society is very complex, and beyond what anyone has yet imagined, or at least anyone that has gained a hearing. What do we do?

Wendell Berry has taught me that even the most complex situations, socially, economically, politically, are like marriage, and I’m sure that he is right. Most moments in our marriage reflect the deeper, harder truth that we each are implicated in the problem, and that we each have something important to say about its resolution.

The only way forward is to make peace with proximate justice. It is a choice to make peace with something, something that is honest and true, something that is more just and more merciful, even if it is not everything. All-or-nothing never works– in marriages, in friendships, in the workplace, in the church. And it never works in politics.


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