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John Calvin and the New Libya

As we in the West celebrate their accomplishments and support their efforts, it is important to temper our expectations and widen our conception of responsible government. The heritage of most Christian reflection on politics has been relatively pragmatic concerning acceptable and appropriate social arrangements.

It is a moment to celebrate with the people of Libya. A tyrant has all but fallen in Libya. Muammar Gaddafi may still be on the loose but he and his sons are no longer in control. Opposition forces have overrun Tripoli and the National Transitional Council seems close to controlling the nation. But, as we Americans have learned all too well during our recent adventures in the Middle East, it is easier to overthrow a despicable tyrant than it is to replace him with something better. The neo-conservative dream that western style liberal democracy would emerge easily and automatically after dislodging tyranny became a nightmare in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Though events in Libya are quite different from these—driven more by internal dynamics than by foreign intervention—we should not get carried away with unrealistic expectations about the political system that can or should emerge from the smoldering wreckage of the Gaddafi regime.

Despite the courage and resolve of the ordinary people who rose up to defeat the megalomaniacal dictator, the Libyan people confront daunting challenges as they valiantly try to establish an alternative political system in the years ahead. One of the legacies that Gaddafi’s rule has left his people is a dearth of effective institutional structures for collective decision-making and the resolution of social conflicts. Too often in the past, the United States response to such situations has been to imagine these nascent political environments as eagerly awaiting the construction of western liberal democratic practices, institutions, and ideals upon a social tabula rasa. We have, furthermore, treated legislative elections as the ultimate sign of political legitimacy and liberal autonomy as the sine qua non of responsible governance.  We imagine that they can and should become what we are.

As we in the West celebrate their accomplishments and support their efforts, it is important to temper our expectations and widen our conception of responsible government.  The heritage of most Christian reflection on politics has been relatively pragmatic concerning acceptable and appropriate social arrangements. Rarely has any particular political system been confused with the Kingdom of God or thought of as God’s intentions for all times and places. But this does not mean that Christians have thought every political arrangement was as good as any other. Both the tyranny against which the Arab Spring has been reacting and the anarchic civil disorder of failed states thwart God’s intentions for human social life.
Therefore as American Christians think about how best to support and encourage our Muslim brothers and sisters as they build a new political order in Libya, we might reflect on two quotations from John Calvin, the 15th Century religious and social reformer.  First, “as you will surely find if you fix your eyes not on one city alone, but look around and glance at the world as a whole, or  at least cast your sight upon regions farther off, divine providence has wisely arranged that various countries should be ruled by various kinds of government” (Institutes IV.xx.8). Libya must be allowed to develop its own political system that comports with the cultural resources and institutional structures at its disposal. While the people of Libya yearn for freedom and long for dignity, they do not imagine or articulate these in the same cultural and historical idiom as Americans. They must be allowed to discern the meaning and shape of these things for themselves.

Second, “I will not deny that aristocracy, or a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy, far excels all others: not indeed of itself, but because it is very rare for kings so to control themselves that their will never disagrees with what is just and right; or for them to be endowed with such keenness and prudence, that each knows how much is enough. Therefore, men’s faults and failings causes it to be safer and more bearable for a number to exercise government, so that they may help one another, teach and admonish one another; and, if one asserts himself unfairly, there may be a number of censors and masters to refrain his willfulness” (Institutes, IV.xx.8). Most obviously, Calvin points toward the importance of a variety of power centers in any society in order to avoid tyranny. The balance of powers is one of the great accomplishments of the American form of liberal democracy. But embedded in this quotation is another important insight. These various sources of power must not simply resist and restrain one another. They must also “teach and admonish one another.” They must engage one another in constructive dialogue and positive cooperation for the sake of the common good. More than simply a negative balance of powers there must be a positive, though contested, moral and cultural vision that provokes a sense of common purpose and mutual responsibility. The United States has its own problems finding this common center currently. As we struggle for our own sense of a common life, we can only hope and pray that Libya finds it as well. It will not be provided by military advisors or foreign aid. It must come from the people of Libya themselves.

In his book, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, Michael Walzer uses the metaphor of marching in one another’s parades. We Americans can celebrate the overthrow of a dictator and acknowledge the claim of the Libyan people to self-determination. There is something profoundly human in the recent events in Libya that we cannot help but celebrate. But the parades in Tashir Square are not the same as the Fourth of July parades in the United States. They have their own history, their own culture, their own institutions and their own aspirations, that are quite different from our own. The shape their political institutions, practices, and ideals will take is also likely to be quite different from our own. We can appreciate and participate in their parade as long as we acknowledge that it is their parade and not ours.


Tim Beach-Verhey is co-pastor, with his wife, Kathy, of Faison Presbyterian Church. He also teaches at Mount Olive College and is the author of “Robust Liberalism: H. Richard Niebuhr and the Ethics of American Public Life.”

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