On Earth, Not in Heaven

This book, the eminent political theorist Michael Walzer writes in its acknowledgments, “has been many years in the making.” He dates its beginnings to a seminar in 1990, but gives the reader reason to think that the book has deeper roots in his life. The opening line of the acknowledgments tells us that he “first studied the Hebrew Bible with Rabbi Hoyim Goren, a superb teacher, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the late 1940s”—that is, when Walzer (born in 1935) was twelve or thirteen, presumably preparing for his bar mitzvah. The title In God’s Shadow reflects the book’s central questions: “How much room for politics can there be when God is the ultimate ruler? How much room is there for prudential decision-making in a nation that lives under divine command and protection?” But the title can also be applied to Walzer himself. For it seems fair to say that his life’s work as a political theorist and activist has been conducted, in some sense, in God’s shadow. Among its other merits, this book throws light on the development of Walzer’s thinking.

Walzer is perhaps best known for his 1977 book Just and Unjust Wars, a work of what he calls “practical morality,” aimed not only at understanding the rights and wrongs of war theoretically, but also at shaping present-day policies and practices. (One hopes that President Barack Obama, who is reported to have read Augustine and Aquinas on the subject of just war, has also read Walzer’s all-too-current book, now in its third edition.) Just and Unjust Wars manages to be both sober and impassioned. Walzer’s outrage at the atrocity of war is evident throughout, yet it is tempered by careful analyses of cases in which the only proper response to man’s inhumanity to man is, it seems, a willingness to shed blood. Reading the book, one feels that one is in the presence of a moral authority: someone who takes God’s command against the shedding of human blood (Genesis 9:5–6) so seriously—and personally—that he can be entrusted with the authority to interpret the command. There is a footnote late in the book, in a discussion of war crimes and the My Lai massacre in particular, that is revealing in this regard. Walzer suggests here “the sorts of commands that should be issued” when a unit of soldiers enters a village, and quotes “an account of an Israeli unit entering Nablus during the Six Day War” in 1967:

The battalion CO got on the field telephone to my company and said, “Don’t touch the civilians…don’t fire until you’re fired at and don’t touch the civilians. Look, you’ve been warned. Their blood be on your heads.”

“Their blood be on your heads” is the sentence that impressed both the soldiers and Walzer. The echo of the biblical God is clear.

The project of In God’s Shadow can appear paradoxical. Walzer proposes to investigate what “the biblical writers think about political life.” Yet he states toward the book’s beginning that “there is no political theory in the Bible. Political theory is a Greek invention. Nor is there a clear conception of an autonomous or distinct political realm, nor of an activity called politics, nor of a status resembling Greek citizenship. And there is no systematic effort to think about this realm, this activity, or this status.” So one might wonder just what there is in the Bible for Walzer to investigate. His answer is to look at biblical texts that concern things we would call political: covenants and legal codes; accounts of war, prophecy, and imperial conquest. What interests Walzer most, however, is what he calls the Bible’s “anti-politics,” which he characterizes as “a kind of politics itself.” Why didn’t the biblical writers construct a political theory such as we find in Plato or Aristotle? Why, in the Bible, aren’t there “citizens in the Greek sense, who understand that they ought to take an interest in politics and defend the common good”? Why don’t the biblical writers, in contrast to Greek philosophers, “attach great value to politics as a way of life”? One can imagine the young Michael Walzer wrestling with these questions as his interest in politics grew. (Walzer is upfront about the origins of his thinking in his experiences: Just and Unjust Wars grew out of his engagement “as a political activist and partisan” with the Vietnam War. Exodus and Revolution (1985), another excellent book, grew out of a trip he made to the American South “to write about the black student sit-ins that marked…the beginning of sixties radicalism.”)

In God’s Shadow consists of a series of studies; Walzer does not pursue a thesis from the book’s beginning to end. Perhaps the most interesting of these studies concern kingship and messianism, and here as well we meet some of Walzer’s characteristic themes. Walzer describes the demand made of Samuel for a king as “perhaps the key political moment in biblical history.” For, on Walzer’s reading, “kings defend politics against divine law,” a claim that he insists is biblical and not Machiavellian in origin. He finds in the books of Samuel and Kings a recognition that life directly under God’s rule—that is, theocracy—poses dangers to social order and national survival. The reason is simple: “The doctrine of God’s earthly kingdom…denies autonomy to political actors”; compromise is preempted by command; moral absolutism leaves no room—or all too little—for maneuver in times of crisis and emergency. These are times when the moral politician must know how to do bad: in the terms of Just and Unjust Wars, he must override individual rights in the interest of collective survival, which Walzer writes in that book is “what [political leaders] are there” to defend. Biblical kings thus introduce what Walzer has called the problem of dirty hands. From the point of view of prophets who represent the voice of divine law in the age of kings, political actors sully themselves by submitting to deliberation matters where the answers should already be clear. Walzer discusses in this regard the doctrine of holy war, or laws of the herem, requiring total destruction of Israel’s enemies in Canaan, which the kings appear to have resisted in favor of a doctrine of limited war that allowed ordinary life, and intermarriage, to be reestablished. In today’s Israel, which is never far from Walzer’s mind, we might think of the ultra-Orthodox settlers in the West Bank, for whom, as Walzer wrote in Exodus and Revolution, there “is no need to surrender territory for the sake of morality, for morality comes, so to speak, with the territory.”

As these examples suggest, there is a touch of anticlericalism in Walzer’s thinking. In fact, in a recent interview on the topic of the future of Israel, he expressed a hope for an “anticlerical reaction” to the ultra-Orthodox militants along the lines of “the anticlericalism we saw in Catholic Europe in the late nineteenth century.” A rejection of the rule of the rabbis, he speculated, might bring a return to a healthier secular politics. But it would be a mistake to think that Walzer is simply antireligious. On the one hand, he is deeply committed to biblical ethics in its concern for the poor and outcast and its demand for justice. (In addition to his writing and teaching, Walzer is also co-editor of the social-democratic journal Dissent.) On the other hand, he is deeply worried by the sort of anti-politics that biblical ethics can inspire. What he most fears, or perhaps despises, is so-called political messianism, which In God’s Shadow casts as the heir of the high or mythic theory of kingship, according to which the king is God’s own son (a doctrine that saw, of course, a rebirth and a transformation with Christianity). Political messianism, for Walzer, is the dream of deliverance from the vulgarity, compromise, dirtiness, and burden of politics—a great and perennial temptation that must be resisted. “Political activists possessed by a messianic faith,” he writes, “are cut loose from all normal constraints on political action. They don’t have to calculate their chances, cultivate popular support, prepare for a long march, build alternative institutions.” Instead, like the right-wing Zionists of today, or the radical Taborites, Anabaptists, and Ranters of yesteryear, they deny what Walzer describes as “the principle on which politics necessarily rests: ‘it is not in heaven.’”

“It is not in heaven” is the verse, taken from its context in Deuteronomy (30:12), cited to support the authority of rabbinic interpretation of Jewish law. As a principle, it thus stands for human autonomy and creativity. But the principle, it should be noted, does not simply break with the biblical text; instead, it refers to the text even while claiming the freedom to go beyond its letter. Similarly, it seems, Walzer’s political thinking both draws from the Bible and pushes it away. For him, God must withdraw in order for there to be room for human politics. But politics totally without God—more precisely, without the Bible’s recognition of the value of the person made in God’s image—risks inhumanity. In God’s Shadow explicitly makes the first of these points. Walzer’s lifelong wrestling with the Bible, his refusal simply to put it behind him, implies the second.

Published in the 2012-11-09 issue: 

Bernard G. Prusak is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

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