Nicholas Wolterstorff on Populism


Last week I had the privilege of attending a session with Nicholas Wolterstorff. It had been my wish for a long time to meet him in person. His visit to the Netherlands then was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.  On the occasion of his visit, a new book titled ‘Thinking about Shalom’ (Denken om Shalom) was presented about his ‘practical philosophy’. During the week, four meetings with him were organized about different topics (philosophy, politics, education, liturgy), but all related to ‘shalom’. The concept of shalom became very important in Wolterstorff’s thinking throughout the years. I would have loved to attend the friday meeting on liturgy, but my schedule prevented that. However, the wednesday session about politics, which was held in the beautiful meeting room of the Upper House (‘Eerste Kamer’) in The Hague, was excellent. In this post I will limit myself to Wolterstorff’s own contribution, though there were several fine speakers besides him. In particular I want to highlight what he said about populism.

9200000077785330Wolterstorff started his talk with a reference to Jeremiah 29,7: ‘Seek the shalom of the city…’. How does this mandate relate to the present phenomenon of populism? A first important step in Wolterstorff’s  analysis was the interpretation of populism in terms of loss. A populist laments the loss of a former way of life, be it the Amercian, Dutch or French way of life. A second step in his analysis is to point out that the populist claims to have a right to (t)his way of life. And if this right is not fulfilled, he considers himself to be a victim. There is – in short – a moral dimension to populism, which is often ignored. So, the question is: is the populist right in his claim? Wolterstorff said: it depends… On what? There is no serious moral reflection or the beginning of an answer yet. That at least was Wolterstorff’s conclusion.

I take these moves to be typical for Wolterstorff’s approach. He has increasingly tried to give voice to the suppressed, be it Palestinians, black South Africans, or others. This is what he seems to do in this case as well: giving voice to the populists. Put differently: he brings to light an all too often overlooked dimension of the populist’s voice. But that is not the end of the story. Populism is at least in three respects at odds with shalom:

  1. An essential part of shalom is peace or social harmony. Populists, however, tend to create hostility in society. At least they aim at increasing divisions between groups of people, the elite and the ordinary man for example.
  2. Populists demand justice for themselves, while they stay at the same time indifferent to the rights of others, like refugees, immigrants, and so on. This is also at odds with shalom.
  3. Shalom does not exclude strangers, but welcomes them and will treat them with openness and respect. Populism does the reverse, treating strangers in terms of threat and danger.

This is, summarized all too shortly, what Wolterstorff had to say about populism. The strength of his remarks is in my opinion that he gives voice to the point of view of the populists, in particular to the implicit moral dimension of his indignation. I fully agree with his analysis that populism is – at least – at three points at odds with shalom. However, it seems to me an intermediate step is missing. Imagine that these three criteria were applied to the Palestinians or the black South Africans in the 1970’s and afriekalleenblank.png80’s. I am not sure they would have passed the test of shalom at that very moment. The process of reconciliation in South Africa was hard and it took many years, while never been fully completed. Yet, Wolterstorff considered their fight to be just, in contrast to the present fight of populism. Why is that?

It has to do with the moral dimension in Wolterstorff’s analysis. The populist feels being wronged. Wronged by the politicians, the elite, and so on. But the important question is of course: is he right in this feeling? The same question apllies to the Palestinians and black South-Africans, when they felt they were being wronged. Were they right? I think so. Not everyone will agree. But even in that case, it seems beyond doubt that their complaints were of a different order in comparison with current populism. In the former case it was about their intrinsic worth as human being, in the latter case about the preservation of a lifestyle. This, I suggest, is an essential difference with a view to the assessment of the question whether one is right in his feeling of being wronged.

This is my suggestion in addition to Wolterstorff’s remarks. But it wouldn’t surpise me as this comes close to what Wolterstorff had himself in mind when he remarked about the question whether the populist is right in his claim: ‘It depends’.

Vermigli and the Right to Resistance

During my study time I once read a review, written by one of my teachers, on a book about Peter Martyr VeRobert Kingdonrmigli. At that time I was almost completely ignorant on Vermigli. But the review somehow aroused my interest. And ever since I’ve been attracted to Vermigli’s biography and theology. Recently I bought Roger Kingdon’s The political thought of Peter Martyr Vermigli – Selected Texts and Commentary (Genève, Librairie Droz 1980). As its subtitle shows, the book is a collection of translated texts of Peter Martyr on political theology, preceded by an excellent introduction of Robert Kingdon.

There has been a renaissance in the study of Peter Martyr Vermigli, since the publication of McLelland’s dissertation The Visible Words of God: the Sacramental Theology of Peter Martyr Vermigli. But, as Irena Backus pointed out in a review in Zwingliana in 2003, the research on Vermigli suffers from the lack of a critical edition of his Opera Omnia. The bulk of Vermigli’s writings consists of commentaries on Scripture. He chose a middle course between Calvin’s brevitas and Bucer’s prolixity, by collecting his theological digressions in loci. These passages were edited after his death (1576) by Robert Le Maçon, pastor of the French Strangers’ Church in London as Loci Communes. The Loci became a popular source for studying Vermigli’s theology in the course of time. At the same time however, it means that other parts of his work remain obscure. Kingdon’s collection offers some of those neglected texts.

In the same review Irena Backus mentions a list of topics that have not been investigated, at least in 2003. One of those topics is Vermigli’s doctrine of resistance, which has not been researched thoroughly to date as far as I know.  And indeed, this is a fascinating aspect of the theology of the Reformation in general, and of Vermigli’s theology as well. Kingdon points out in his Introduction that the topic was important for Peter Martyr. His biography will have contributed to this, while he was forced to flee a couple of times during his lifetime. Another factor is the fact that Vermigli had to lecture on books of the Old Testament in Strasbourg and Zürich. And as Kingdon remarks: “The matter of the Old Testament, furthermore, in some ways lends itself more than the New Testament to political commentary” (p.V).

Kingdon devotes considerable attention Vermigli’s doctrine of resistance in his Introduction, characterizing it as ‘basically Lutheran’ (XVIII). As he points out: “Vermigli very clearly wanted to avoid any hint of sanctioning popular revolt” (XVI). However, in somPeter Martyr Vermigli-1e circumstances he approves of resistance by inferior magistrates. Kingdon clearly suspects that Vermigli’s thoughts on the subject are flawed by inconsistency. He writes that ‘Vermigli (…) tried to apply the same argument (…) but without much success’ (XVII), that his examples ‘are not fitted very convincingly to the general theory’ (XVII) and that ‘[t]he apparent contradiction is not recognized or resolved’ by him (XIX). With all due respect for Kingdon (and he was indeed an expert on the Reformation!), I would question whether he is correct here. While it might be possible that Vermigli’s thoughts on the subject were somehow inconsistent, it seems far more probable that we haven’t caught the precise drift of his thoughts. Let me give one example of possible additional thoughts.

Vermigli seems to be very emphatic in his refusal to assign the right of resistance to individuals! Only on the basis of political ‘institutions’ (be it impersonal (laws) or personal (magistrates)) there can be talk of justified resistance. Why is that? It is my hunch that here the ‘logic of God’s commandments’ is at work: “You shall not kill” (Ex.20:13 RSV). There is no mandate to overrule this commandment on an individual basis. But there can be such a mandate for a policital body. Paul asks in Romans 13 not only for obedience to the governing authorities (13:2). He also points out that it has the duty to execute God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (13:4). This is the kind of mandate, given not to an individual, but to a political body, which Vermigli has in mind. The structuring of divine mandates might resolve the apparent inconsistency when Vermigli maintains that “resistance to the ancient kings of Israel was never justified”, while in the same scholium on Judges 3 speaking approvingly “of the imprisonment of a Danish king by his subjects and of the English practice of compelling kings to account for misspent money” (XIX). Kingdon suggests that “[t]his statement would seem to prohibit resistance in hereditary kingdoms and permit it only in elective kingdoms” (Ibid). But this conclusion does not follow, if we keep an eye on the ‘logic of God’s commandments’. Precisely that seems Vermigli’s point: the specific mandate given by God to David seems to overrule the right of resistance. Why this is so, is another question. My hunch is that the more specific a commandment is for Vermigli, the higher its lasting validity.

Anyway, it seems that outlining Vermigli’s political theology and in particular his doctrine of resistance is a worthwile project indeed!