David T. Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions, IVP, 2019
It’s hard to escape politics these days. Alternative political visions assail us, ever more aggressively, in the harshly divided public square. Viewpoints are increasingly polarized, and reasoned debate increasingly rare.
The second edition of Koyzis’s 2003 book, then, updated to reflect developments in political life and the author’s own thinking, is a welcome and trusty guide for Christian thinking about, and engagement in, politics. Koyzis has taught political theory at university level for thirty years and is an able analyst of the variety of political thought he covers in the book.
He outlines and explains five major political -isms, detailing their history and evaluating each from a biblical perspective – liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democratism, and socialism. Each of these Koyzis characterizes as an ideology, a concept he discusses in his first chapter and wants to describe as a “redemptive story” of sorts. An ideology has, at heart, he maintains, a religious character, and is, essentially, idolatrous from a Christian perspective, idolatry consisting of “putting something else in place of God.” Each of the political systems he discusses, Koyzis sees as presupposing “a basic story that sees human beings as seeking to effect their own salvation and to extend this to the rest of the world through political and even violent means.” He compares this to the biblical redemptive story and argues for a redemptive understanding of politics, which “requires the fleshing out of the divine calling to do justice.”
Liberalism and socialism, then, despite being diametrically opposed to one another, are, in fact, sibling rivals, in that they both emerge from an idolatrous, human-centred worldview. Koyzis’s book stands as a warning for Christians to understand the nature of whatever political -ism they feel drawn to, to understand its strengths and weaknesses and in what ways it fails to do justice to the “Christian understanding of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.”
Koyzis first of all deals with the ideology that most Americans and Europeans are most familiar with – liberalism, from which most of our most valued political ideas spring (human rights, freedom, the modern nation-state). His careful tracking of its history shows it stands behind both modern affiliations of “liberal” and “conservative.” At its core is the idea of human sovereignty, which has given rise to many benefits in society, but which, in the end, from a Christian perspective, fails, not least because it fails to properly account for the fact that human beings are created for life in community.
There follows similar careful treatment of the other -isms, including, interestingly, “democratism.” Koyzis objects to a view of democracy that “embodies a belief in the near infallibility of the vox populi,” where policies come to be viewed as right, just because a majority support them. He worries that there is totalitarian potential within even democratically elected governments.
After critiquing the various ideologies, Koyzis seeks to “transcend” them all, and to present a biblical understanding of politics and their place in God’s world. In doing so, he reviews two Christian traditions which have proved helpful in this regard – neo-Thomist Roman Catholic social teaching from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and neo-Calvinist approaches emanating from the Netherlands around the same time. Koyzis suggests that Christians often either want to keep their faith separate from their politics, or feel that the political is not something they ought to be involved in or concerned with. Cultural activity, including politics, however, for Koyzis, a redemptive process, to which Christians are called. “We must acknowledge and live out Jesus Christ’s claim over [creation].”
The state’s task, in Koyzis’s analysis, is to wield its power in pursuit of justice, to adjudicate various claims such that “no one entity, be it an individual or community, is permitted to grow cancerously at the expense of everything else.” It therefore ought to be more than the “passive referee of classical liberalism” and far from “the all-pervasive agent of the statist ideologies.” In fulfilling this role, state’s task is divinely ordained. But of course, the state often fails, sometimes disastrously. Because even the built-in democratic checks and balances fail, Koyzis reminds us that everyone, and every institution, has a justice-seeking responsibility, which may lead to the need for civil disobedience.
Ultimately, we await the coming of God’s final reign of justice over the new heaven and new earth, but, far from being passive, Koyzis urges Christians to see every act of doing justice as a signpost to that day. He concludes with a consideration of the church’s role in politics and takes the view that the church’s role, as an institution, is to teach its members to think biblically and rightly about political issues and to equip them to engage in the public arena. The church, he suggests, ought not itself to make proclamations on particular policy formulations. That, it seems to me, to be a good general approach, but I wonder if there are not specific instances where the issue to so clear cut from a biblical standpoint that the church really has a duty to take a position.
Koyzis makes his case, however, for Christ-followers to be wary of giving unfettered allegiance to any political -ism, both eloquently and persuasively. In today’s world of heightening political tension, the book is a very helpful guide to help Christians negotiate the siren call of any one seemingly appealing ideology.