More than a Resource: Covenant as a basis for societal organization

More than a Resource:

Covenant as a Basis for Societal Organization

By Prof. Dr. Marcia Pally


Religion and Democracy:

Challenges and Resources in a Public Theological Perspective

Torsten Meireis and Rolf Schieder (Eds., 2017)



Of human thriving, the neurobiologist Darcia Narvaez writes, “To approach eudaimonia or human flourishing, one must have a concept of human nature, a realization of what constitutes a normal baseline, and an understanding of where humans are.” (Narvaez 2014, 438) The Greeks thought similarly, as Thomas Nagel points out: one studies natural philosophy for the “religious” purpose of learning how the natural and human world works – the baseline in Narvaez’s language – so as to live in harmony with it and so near eudaimonia (Nagel 2010, 3–4). The same may be said of government: we need an understanding of our baseline, how humans are, to design government that works with it for human flourishing.

This chapter is a prolegomenon to discussions of democracy. It looks at how humanity works so that we may develop government to suit. I shall propose that our “normal baseline” is relational as described by Aquinas and early Reformed political theorists as they drew on biblical notions of relationality and covenant. If our baseline is covenantal, we would have to account for this relationality in our political aims and means. I’ll offer support for relationality from the sciences, which I’m happy to say are at last catching up to theology. I propose that developing political structures and economic policy in accord with human covenantality yields greater flourishing than the alternative; a few examples will be discussed. Making covenantal commitment understandable and implementable in the public sphere would be a substantial contribution of theology to politics, which is what this book is about.

Our relational “normal baseline”

Following Narvaez, we will start at the beginning: the human baseline is relational because Being is relational. Relation requires distinct entities, without which there is no inter-relating bond. The structure of existence, and thus human existence, is distinct entities amid relation. We know this from experience: even identical twins are distinct, different in character and worldview, yet all children develop in interaction with their physical and human surroundings. Each of us is a unique, separate being who becomes the unique person she is through relationship and interaction.

We know this also from theology. Being, exist-ability itself, results from the source of all that is. There could be nothing, but there’s something. The source of all “something” is what some people call God (but for readers who find this unpersuasive, “source of all” suffices for the purposes of this chapter). Franz Rosenzweig called the source of all “the eventfulness of the limitless possibilities that will come to exist.” (Wolfson 2014) After the kabbalist Ein Sof and F. W. J. Schelling, this source is not so much what precedes effects as what is realized as it yields effects. As existence results from this source, “God himself”, Aquinas writes, “is properly the cause of universal being which is innermost in all things [beings] […] in all things God works intimately.” (Aquinas 1948) In Merleau-Ponty’s words, divine “transcendence no longer hangs over man. He becomes, strangely, its privileged bearer.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964, 71)

On one hand, particular beings are radically different from this source – differences in materiality/immateriality and finitude/infinitude. On the other, particulars intimately partake of the source of existence to exist at all. We partake of the source of existence – something radically different from ourselves – in order to exist. This difference yet partaking/intimate relation is the way anything comes to be. The grammar of existence is distinction-amid-relation. Kirk Wegter-McNelly summarizes, cosmos is “a place in which entangled independence-through-relationship is the fundamental characteristic of being.” (Wegter-McNelly 2011, 136) The Trinity is a wonderful teacher of this idea. Each Trinitarian person is distinct, each with “its own particular distinguishing notes”, as Gregory of Nyssa (1961, 207–209) wrote. Yet each is who he is through relation to other Trinitarian Persons (there is no “Father” without “Son” or “Spirit” without “Father” and “Son”). This idea of perichoresis (the Trinitarian Persons “dancing around” one another) allows Wegter-McNelly to continue, “The deity of this God resides not in the persons as distinct from one another but within and among the persons as they are related to one another, i.e., in the relationality that constitutes them and binds them.” (Wegter-McNelly 2011, 128–129)[1]

Humanity, “in the image” of this relational God, partakes of his distinct-persons-in-community. It is a poetic way of saying that, as distinction-amid-relation is the source and grammar of exist-ability, all persons that exist are distinct from each other yet also in relation. There is no other way to be. Exist-ability as distinction-amid-relation makes humanity and society a matter of distinction-amid-relation. On one hand, we recall our distinct identical twins and the singularity of each person, yet on the other, “the individual is a fact of existence”, Martin Buber wrote, “insofar as he steps into a living relation with other individuals.” (Buber 1993, 203)

Distinction-amid-relation pertains also to our actions. Human action is radically different from the “acts” of the source of exist-ability, yet persons analogously, secondarily make things of what exists in world. In the classic example, God makes the laws of nature while persons plant seeds and make grains grow – what Aquinas calls the doctrine of “secondary causes”. The medieval Muslim philosophers Al-Ash’ari and Al-Ghazali held that humanity “performs” what God creates. In the Judaic tselem Elohim (humanity made in the image of God), persons are radically different from incorporeal, imageless God. Yet we partake analogically of his imageless “image” (we partake of exist-ability). Such partaking enables humanity to act secondarily, within human abilities, to further God’s vision for existence. Indeed, on this idea of “co-creatorship” we have the “moral correspondence” to do so, the dmuth Elohim (similitudo) to secondarily realize God’s moral vision. Terence Fretheim (Fretheim 2005) explains, “Human beings are not only created in the image of God (this is who they are); they are also created to be the image of God (this is their role in the world).” Or as Karl Rahner (1966, 401-–402) wrote, this is our “asymptotic” morality, our capacity to strive towards God’s vision for existence.

 Distinction-amid-relation: Support from the sciences

Exist-ability as distinction-amid-relation is not only a theological idea but a scientific one. The neuro-chemical pathways of the brain are not only genetically set but develop through each person’s interactions with others. Narvaez again, “whom a person becomes is a co-construction of genes, gene expression from environmental effects […] and the ecological and cultural surroundings […] There is no being without shared social relations.” (Narvaez 2014)[2] Evolutionary biology finds that we are a “hyper-cooperative species” (Schmid-Hempel 2015) in which “reciprocal altruism” (Trivers 1971, 35–57; Bowles & Ginties 2013) structures not only dyadic exchange and kin relations but large societal networks. It is the base also for interactions among highly mobile persons and groups absent long-term contact (Seyfarth & Cheney 2012). Evolutionary benefits to hunter-gatherer societies (95 percent of our evolutionary history) included improved hunting among cooperative rather than competitive clans and greater offspring survival as families helped each other with offspring. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler find that, even amid present-day mobility and urban anonymity, generous acts prompt generous responses not only dyadically and immediately but expansively, in network fashion (Christakis & Fowler 2009). And we are not alone in this relational set-up. Primatologist Frans de Waal writes, “If one hyena or pelican were to monopolize all rewards, the system would collapse. Survival depends on sharing […] chimpanzees and humans go even further by moderating their share of joint rewards to prevent frustration in others.” (De Waal 2014, 71)

In short, we are not bound by the “selfish gene” but by relational ones. Post-quantum physics adds that humanity is relational because the grammar of existence is relational – an echo of the theology above. The trajectories of sub-atomic particles are “guided by” interactions with the trajectories of other particles. “We must accept the idea”, physicist Carlo Rovelli writes, “that reality is only interaction […] All things are continually interacting with one another, and in doing so each bears the traces of that with which it has interacted” (Rovelli 2016, 20, 69) even across hundreds of kilometers. Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” – relation at the quantum level – is how things are. Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine concludes that “communication” – even “consciousness” – is present in all chemical reactions, where molecules “know” and are affected by what the other molecules will do, again over significant distance. We are “embedded in a cooperating natural world.” (Narvaez 2014, 429)

 Distinction-amid-relation: Expressed in covenant

The world of reciprocal impact that we live in entails reciprocal responsibility. For the world’s relational set-up to work, each distinct person – dependent on others for survival and development – must attend to those on whom she is dependent as others must attend to her. The name for this reciprocal commitment is covenant.

Covenant is a bond between distinct parties where each party gives for the sake and flourishing of the other. However profound the covenant, it does not subsume the person, nor is the individual sacrifice-able for the group or for covenant itself (the point of the binding of Isaac narrative). In Lenn Goodman’s words, “The covenant itself […] rests on (and thus cannot create) the freedom of the covenantors.” (Goodman 1991, 41–42)

In the Judaic tradition, the source of human covenantality is twofold. We partake of the distinction-amid-relation grammar of existence (we are in the image of a relational, covenantal God) and we are in covenantal relation with .

Covenants of reciprocal commitment among equals are easily imagined, as are covenants with asymmetric terms between unequal parties. The innovation of the Hebrew Bible is reciprocity between unequals, between the divine and human and among persons of different status. In this reciprocity, stipulative features might arise (as parents stipulate that a child cleans her room), but covenant is not stipulative in motive or telos (one doesn’t have children so that they clean their rooms). Unlike stipulative contract, which protects interests, covenant protects relationship. Where breach of contract generally voids the bond, covenant is irrevocable (one doesn’t cancel covenant if children fail to clean their rooms).

One aspect of God’s covenant with humanity, as we’ve seen, is co-creatorship. In covenant, God entrusts humanity to further his vision for existence in world. Another aspect is the inauguration and maintenance of covenant by gift, often of an item of little economic value. As, among others, Marcel Mauss and Lewis Hyde have observed (Mauss 1990; Hyde 1983), the allegiance – the spirit – of the donor is given to the donee in the performative act of gift-giving. Donation of spirit makes the bond. It begins dyadically between God and Adam: God breaths his “spirit” (nishmat cha’im, Genesis 2:7) into Adam. Also dyadically, God gives Noah life and covenant; Noah and his children return the gift in performing the seven Noahite moral laws. God gives to the patriarchs the gifts of covenant and land, of survival in world. In reciprocity, their children return the harvest of the land to the Temple. Returning tokens of the harvest to God is not sustenance of the infinite transcendent (who needs nothing) but acceptance of the reciprocity of covenant.

Yet covenant does not remain dyadic. Persons give to God, in Judaic tradition, also by giving in charity, hekdesh (made holy). In this triangulation, one gives to God by giving to a third party, persons in need. These relations-of-giving are mutually constitutive: covenantal commitment to others constitutes covenant with God, and covenant with God sustains us in covenantal commitments to others.

Covenant – reciprocal commitment – thus extends from dyad to larger associations. Reciprocal gift becomes gift exchange network, as Mauss described it, where gift from God to person generates gift from person to neighbor and on to the next person through the giving loop, thus sustaining it (cf. Godbout & Caillé 1998). There is some argument that gift-exchange networks aren’t possible absent the physical proximity of pre-modern communities. But covenantal gift-exchange networks were sustained across infrequent contact and vast distances (thousands of miles of the Pacific, for instance). Modern societies, with airplanes, Skype, Instagram, etc., cannot claim impossible what was done in canoes.

We find the triangulated covenant (from God to person to other persons) in the Ten Commandments, the first three of which pertain to person and God, the rest, among persons. In Numbers 5:6, harm to persons, abrogating covenant with them, abrogates covenant with God.[3] Amos and Proverbs denounce the hypocrisy of performing rituals while abandoning the afflicted, as if one could maintain bond with God absent bond with the needy[4] – one of the most oft-repeated of biblical and rabbinic ideas.

In the Second Testament, the triangulation of covenantal commitment is seen in the famous passage in 1 John 4:20, “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” Absent love of others, there is no love of God. But John continues: love of God enables love of others, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Irenaeus echoes, “to love Him above all, and one’s neighbor […] do reveal one and the same God.” (Irenaeus 1989, 478) Or as Augustine put it, the “relic” of a covenant-making God in each person gives her the capacity to love other persons covenantally.

But here something is added. In the Judaic tradition, the source of humanity’s covenantality is twofold: being in the image of a covenantal God and being in covenant with him. In Christian tradition, the source is threefold; the third source is the triune nature of the divine. As the Christian God is triune, the “relic” of God in each person is triune, too – this is the covenantal relationality of the Trinity. This relationality within each of us, endowing us with relationality, enables us to love others in covenant. All in all, God makes to humanity a triune gift in covenant: the gift of Being itself, of being in God’s (relational, covenantal) image, and the gift of himself in Jesus. Yet Jesus is not any gift (like an inert object); he is the gift of relationality, love, and covenant itself. He demonstrates covenantal relationality in world; we may learn it and extend it to others.

In sum, humanity, made in God’s (relational, covenantal) image, is given relational, covenantal Being and a relational being in covenant (Jesus). Thus, we have the capacity, dmuth Elohim or similitudo, to respond to God and others covenantally. This capacity, Catherine Keller writes, is what it means to be “response-able”.

As covenantal commitment is triangulated from God to person to other persons, which persons are in the loop? Consistent with the idea that the set-up of exist-ability per se is relational/covenantal, the biblical answer is: all the nations.[5] The covenant to all three patriarchs is “for the blessing of all the nations” (Genesis 12:3, 26:4, 28:14). God makes covenants with non-Israelites as all persons, made in God’s image, are capable of “moral correspondence”, of acting morally and committing themselves to covenantal bonds. Covenantal commitment undergirds the extensive biblical and rabbinic obligations to the needy and stranger. So extensive are those for the stranger that they are cited as a model for treatment of the Hebrew poor (Leviticus 25:35-39, ). Ezekiel 47:22-23 grants strangers even land rights. The effectiveness of these commitments prodded the Emperor Julian to demand improvement in Roman poor relief: “it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.” (Stern 1980, 549–550)

The enemy too must be approached covenantally, with a request for a peace settlement before the commencement of any war (Deuteronomy 20:10). Residents of besieged cities, on the rabbinic, Maimonidean, and Nachmonidean view, must be allowed to leave unharmed. Enemy nations may not be oppressed even when at war with them (2 Chron. 28:8-15). Truces and peace agreements must be honored even if the enemy breaches them (Joshua 9). A scorched earth policy is prohibited, and captives must be provided for.[7] Even the enslaving Egyptians are to be welcomed into the family nations and granted this regard after the third generation post-Exodus.

The medieval period gives us one of the most soaring expressions of the triangulated covenant. The great French commentator Rashi reads in Isaiah, “I cannot be God unless you are my witness”, and Rashi glosses, “I am the God who will be whenever you bear witness to love and justice in the world.” God can be God when persons are loving and just to each other. Levinas builds on this idea: relationship with God, he writes, “can be traced back to the love of one’s neighbor.” (Levinas 1994, 146–147) The Catholic theologian Richard Kearney evocatively reprises, “This is a deus capax who in turn calls out to the homo capax of history in order to be made flesh, again and again – each moment we confront the face of the other, welcome the stranger.” Echoing both Levinas and Rashi, Kearney concludes that “welcoming the stranger” is the site of our bond with God, “A capacitating God who is capable of all things cannot actually be or become incarnate until we say yes.” (Kearney 2009, 143,155)

We, in God’s image, are set up as distinct persons, each in covenantal relation to God and others. Until we say “yes” to the covenantal commitment, God works in world and waits.

 Covenant as political theory: The Reformed tradition and early America

In considering the role of covenant in human arrangements, Yoram Hazony begins from the idea that covenantal commitment is the structure of our existence. The Bible, he writes, is “a philosophical argument for the importance of Israel’s covenant with God not only for the Jews but also for ‘all the nations of the earth.’ […] [The biblical author] wished to persuade his readers that there exists a law whose force is of a universal nature, because it derives from the way the world itself was made.” (Hazony 2012, 22, 249)

That it is covenantal relationality – and not some other ontology – which structures our existence grounds several Christian traditions as well, among them Catholic Social Teaching and important aspects of early Protestant development. The peasant revolts of the 1520s were grounded on the idea that society is covenantly based and thus that gross inequalities between elites and commoners are unsupportable (Brecht 1974; Blickle 1987). Many Reformed thinkers deemed covenant the foundation and form of society. They saw a “symbiosis” between the divine bonds (among Trinitarian persons, between God and humanity) and human bonds (McCoy & Baker 1991, 52). Thus, analogous to the bonds of the Trinitarian Persons and analogous to covenant between God and humanity, each (distinct) person in God’s (relational) image is responsible for maintaining covenantal commitment with God and among persons. Among persons, covenant binds the family, church, and guild, which in turn make up the larger covenanted networks of town and nation. It is these covenantal commitments that each person must support.

The spring-board thinker of Reformed covenantal politics, Heinrich Bullinger, was principle author of the First Helvetic Confession (1536) and author of the Second (1566). He traced covenant from God and Adam to the Judaic patriarchs, which he held is the same triangulated covenant as taught by Jesus and Paul (Bullinger 1534, 119). Not all Reformed thinkers agreed; Calvin held to two covenants (the “carnal” or law covenant of Israel and the spiritual covenant of Christianity), and his doctrine of double pre-destination gave covenantal reciprocity to God smaller importance. However, others like Cornelius Wiggertz followed Bullinger in holding to one reciprocating covenant through the ages and testaments.

Wiggertz was a source for Arminian theology and its accent on humanity’s capacity, by prevenient (this worldly) grace, to reciprocate God’s love and act morally, with covenantal regard, toward God and others. As John Wesley, the eighteenth-century advocate of Arminianism in England and America, later would write, “God worketh in you, therefore you can work […] God worketh in you; therefore you must work; you must be ‘workers together with him’ (they are the very words of the Apostle); otherwise, he will cease working” (see, On Working Out Our Own Salvation). Zacharias Ursinus was more emphatic, holding that God made a covenant with humanity at creation and offers salvation to all of faith and moral conduct (not only to particular confessions; see, Major Catechism, 1561/1562). Kaspar Olevianus, Ursinus’s colleague in Heidelberg, went further, holding that covenantal commitment was not with humanity at creation but rather with creation, structuring not only human relations but world itself.

Among the first to develop an explicitly covenantal political theory was Johannes Althusius. Persons individually, he held, are created helpless but have a “symbiotic” relational nature so that they live in covenantal commitment with God and each other (Althusius 1964). Politics is the art of creating worldly covenantal structures, “the art of associating (consociandi) men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them”, including institutions, policies, mores, and a division of power so that society proceeds covenantally, without concentration or abuse. The “fundamental law” of the nation or commonwealth “is nothing other than certain covenants (pacta) by which many cities and provinces come together and agree to establish and defend one and the same commonwealth by common work, counsel, and aid.”

Contra political theorist Jean Bodin – who held that nations are guaranteed not by human pacta but by indivisible, eternal sovereignty vested in a prince – Althusius declared that sovereignty lies in the network of covenantal bonds. While magistrates may administer, “It is not a collection of individuals but a covenanted whole that has the rights of sovereignty.” (McCoy & Baker 1991, 60) The “moral” law of the Ten Commandments is the core of covenantal responsibility, which is interpreted into “proper laws” specific to each community. Should a magistrate or prince violate covenantal responsibility with God or community, Althusius held (contra Bodin and unusually for his time), they may be removed from office.

This foreshadowing of representative government consented to by the covenanted community was elaborated by Johannes Cocceius, born the year of the publication of Althusius’ Politics (1603) and dying the year of the Fundamental Constitution of Carolina (1669), written by the great sponsor of covenantal politics, John Locke. Like Bullinger, Cocceius held to one covenant of love and community within the Triune God, between God and humanity, and among persons. One comes to understand this covenant, he held, by reading Scripture within an interpreting community. Because we are in the image of a relational, covenantal God and in covenant with him, human covenant reflects covenant with God. Thus we may come to understand bond with God through covenantal life with others, notably the covenanted church community of Bible readers.

Cocceius recognized that, as persons live and study Scripture in varying communities and circumstances, each understands it differently, a perspective that adumbrates Kant’s critic Johann Georg Hamann and Romantics such as Herder and Schleiermacher as well as later social science. Multiple interpretations of Scripture, Cocceius held, will emerge as God works differently in different contexts. The process is creative and evolving under God’s vision, in which God and humanity participate. (We hear echoes of Jewish “co-creatorship”, which Cocceius had learned in his studies of Hebrew and rabbinics; one might note also a distant, family resemblance to Hegel’s World Historical Spirit.) Without multiple interpretations, Cocceius wrote, the Bible would become irrelevant in the face of new conditions. “There is no law that orders the person who comes after to be content with the things his predecessors have learned.”[8] (McCoy & Baker 1991, 76) Resistance to variety and change is, on Cocceius’ account, pride and fallenness as it presumes one interpretation is absolute truth, which only God can know.

Here we find intimations of the Enlightenment proposal that human knowledge, as imperfect, benefits from varying perspectives, an idea that contributed to notions of freedom of expression, association, and press. Over the following century, the Reformed view of covenant saw effects in Germany, England, Scotland, and the American colonies. The Mayflower Compact (1620) declares the new Massachusetts colony a covenant of persons bound together as they are bound to God: “We, whose names are underwritten […] solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick.” (Mayflower Compact 1620) Althusius’ and Cocceius’ themes are all present: the New World would be part of the covenantal-historical process, guided by God and implemented by men in free covenant with him and each other. Laws are developed by the governed for the common good as guided by God’s principles.

A decade later, John Winthrop declared in A Model of Christian Charity that his Massachusetts community hangs together by bonds to each other and God. His understanding of society is Althusius’ anthropology: “so that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection.” These bonds constitute the sovereign group, and in them “we must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens.” Thus, in community governance, “the care of the public must over-sway all private respects, by which, not only conscience, but mere civil policy, doth bind us.” (Winthrop 1630, 34–35) As Althusius had specified, political representatives were legitimate only as long as they governed covenantally. When the magistrates of Massachusetts Bay tried to make themselves into a permanent body, granting themselves power over the covenanted community, the citizens responded with term limits. To ensure that the covenanted community was preserved and that no power overtakes it, the Body of Liberties was enacted in 1641, with many of its provisions later written into the U.S. Bill of Rights.

At the end of the century, John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration synthesized the covenantal literature on church and state. Church, for Locke, is a covenanted body which men enter freely, out of love for its precepts and each other. “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God.” Locke followed Cocceius in recognizing the plurality of scriptural interpretations as God works differently in different worldly conditions. Thus, as no one can be sure of the absolute truth of an idea, none may be persecuted for holding unpopular ones. State, Locke held, is too a covenanted body, “a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.” (Locke 1698) Thus, both church and state are compacts: one for spiritual matters, which may not be settled by human sanctions, the other for civil flourishing, which may require sanctions by community representatives should covenantal commitment be violated.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) relies on Althusius’ and Locke’s idea that sovereigns may be deposed for covenant violations (and on Locke’s specific criteria for doing so). The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), forerunner of the U.S. Bill of Rights, declares, as Althusius might have done, “That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people […] That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit.” (Virginia Declaration of Rights 1776) Covenantal thinking also undergirds the opening affirmation of the U.S. Constitution, that government is by “We the People” in compact with each other (1787/1789). American Constitutional protections of freedom of religion (1789) are rooted in Cocceius’ and Locke’s recognition of the plurality of Scriptural interpretation. The division of government into three branches and into federal and state powers follows covenantal principles of checks and balances to shield the covenanted community from tyranny and abuse.

 Covenant as a basis for present politics: A few examples

As covenant pre-supposes distinct persons giving for the sake and flourishing of others, it pre-empts self-absorption, greed, and abandonment, replacing them with concern for the common good – the foedus (covenant) and demos. Covenant does not recede from the needs and plans of individuals but sees them not as a competitive zero-sum game: me-first, my firm, market share, or party. Rather, as the biologists tell us, individual goals and concerns develop in relation with those of others, and so each must account for others in a network of reciprocal commitments for a future understood also as shared.

Reciprocal, covenantal commitments are not a codex but, as Cocceius noted, a process of reciprocal learning and discussion – both when common needs and goals are evident and when we are beset by conflict. This process requires, in Joel Hunter’s marvelous words, asking as a first step “why the other side is for the other side” (Hunter 2008, 84–85) and brokering the answers into mores, policy, and institutions. We may begin with near others, but given the present mobility of persons, goods, microbes, and ideas, arenas of reciprocal impact and responsibility may reach across the globe. Though touted as the guru of greed, Adam Smith proposed just this: in markets as in all of society, he wrote, each should “endeavour, as much as he can, to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer.” (Smith 1976, 21)

Politically, a covenantal mindset (asking “why the other side is for the other side”) would strengthen the power of democratically self-governing institutions – local and regional government; labor unions; industry, trade, and professional associations; grassroots political groups; faith-based organizations – so that they and the individuals they represent can work out policy alongside national government and the market. It would mean building into political processes the fora for such groups to work regularly with each other. This stands in contrast to each group confronting others only at crisis points, when animus is present and trusting ways of working together are not developed. It contrasts also with a situation in which each group speaks individually with government and so, not hearing the variety of aims and problems around the table, may persist in its own perspective rather than work the concerns of all into the compromise that is policy and practice.

Economically, a covenantal worldview will not change market relations (supply and demand, etc.) but will change relations within the market, prioritizing them and our reciprocal responsibility. It will alter economic transactions by configuring them within mutual regard and common goals. Today, this might entail: improved education; worker re-training in “old industry” areas; regional re-development coordinated among local and national governments and business, notably firms that close factories. The case of Pittsburgh is illustrative: its loss of 5,100 iron and steel jobs over 25 years was outstripped by redevelopment gains of 66,000 new jobs in health care, banking, and professional services (Irwin 2016). Other proposals include tying management earnings to long-term development rather than short-term profits, more progressive taxation, and repealing tax loopholes that allow transnational corporations to pay far less tax than the official rate or, if they move to tax havens, to pay little tax at all.[9] In the U.S., Democrat-voting states have substantially more of this investment and progressive taxation than Republican-voting states and score higher on income, life expectancy, and education levels.[10]

 Concluding remarks

If these are not good suggestions, others will be better. But the proposal here has been covenant as framework and bulwark for governmental systems based on the consent and voice of the governed.

One might note that such a covenantal worldview is not much present. But worldviews change, as they did from monarchical to democratic views of sovereignty. Moreover, the short sketch of covenantal political theory suggests that grounding societal organization on covenantal commitment would not be a change to something new but the resurrection of the first modern developments in democracy.

If we have lost sight of them, we have lost sight of our “baseline” as distinct persons who become who we are in relation and so must see to those relations in reciprocal commitment. Anthropologists Nancy Abrams and Joel Primack write, “We have no sense of how we and our fellow humans fit into the big picture […] Without a big picture we are very small people.” (Abrams & Primack 2012, xi–xii)

In public discussions of the role of religion in democratic society, most frequent is the “charity/social service” discourse. Theology, on this account, exists to provide good works when the market won’t and the state can’t. I’d aim for something bigger. The covenantal theology described here anchors us in the relational conditions of Being and of human beings so that we may build culture and politics upon them for shared human flourishing.


Marcia Pally teaches Multilingual Multicultural Studies at New York University, at Fordham University, and is a regular guest professor in the theology department at Humboldt University (Berlin). Her most recent book is Commonwealth and covenant: Economics, politics, and theologies of relationality (2016). She is on the steering committee of the Berlin Institute of Public Theology.


Abrams, Nancy, Primack, Joel (2012): The New Universe and the Human Future, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Althusius, Johannes (1964): The politics of Johannes Althusius. An abridged translation of the third edition of politica methodice digesta, atque exemplis sacris et profanis illustrate, transl. by F. Carney, Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 1603), Chapters 1, 3–4.

Aquinas, Thomas (1948): Summa Theologica 1–5, trans. by Fathers of the Dominican English Province, Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Ia, q. 105, art. 5.

Blickle, Peter (ed.) (1987): Zugänge zur bäuerlichen Reformation, Zurich: Chronos.

Bowles, Samuel, Ginties, Herbert (2013): A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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[1] Emphasis mine; Wegter-McNelly is building on Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic theology. Vol. 1. trans. by G. W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991, 298, 323, 335.

[2] Daniel Stern identifies the “core self” and the “core self-with-another” in infants; see, Daniel N. Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology, New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.

[3] “Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty.”

[4] Amos 5:21-24: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me … But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream”; Proverbs 21:3: “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than [ritual] sacrifice.”

[5] One could invent an exclusionary covenant, commitment only to and within one’s own group, but it would not be grounded in the ontology of the Jewish and Christian traditions.

[6] A brief sampling: Exodus 21:2, Exodus 22:25-27, Leviticus 25:4-6, 13, Deuteronomy 14:22, Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-9, 12-15, Deuteronomy 23:15-16, 19, Deuteronomy 24:19-2.

[7] Sifre Bemidbar 157 s.v. Vayishlach otam (on Numbers 31:7); Maimonides, The Laws of Kings (Hilchot Melachim) 6:4; see also Nachmanides, Additions to Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitzvah 5, where he mandates that one “behave well in war even with enemies at the time of war.”

[8] In his Summa theologiae ex scrituris repetita.



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Marcia Pally

Professor Marcia Pally

Professor Marcia Pally

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