In her terrific Democracy on Trial (1995), the late political theorist and public intellectual Jean Bethke Elshtain (whom I had the privilege of having as a professor as an undergraduate – she was one of Georgetown’s best-kept secrets!) reflects on the ills afflicting American democracy, among them the obliteration by both Left and Right of the private-public distinction (e.g. feminists’ 1970s slogan “the personal is political,” or conservatives’ attempts to involve the government in private sexual lives) and what identity politics, where groups such as women and ethnic minorities militantly pursue a politics revolving around a perceived victimization demonize the “oppressor” to the point that any meaningful dialogue, one of the currencies of democracy, is ruled out or made impossible. More importantly, in this book Elshtain reminds us that true democracy is not just a system of government but also a set of “democratic dispositions” among citizens that enables them to debate, compromise, and respect their fellows as they seek, not utopia, but a “more perfect Union,” as Lincoln so aptly put it.
One of my favorite moments in the book comes when Elshtain recounts her response to a radio broadcaster’s question: “What does it mean to you to be an American?” She “stammered and mumbled for a moment before I got my bearings and responded”:
It means that one can share a dream of political possibility, which is to say, a dream of democracy; it means that one can make one’s voice heard; it means both individual accomplishment as well as a sense of responsibility; it means sharing the possibility of a brotherhood and sisterhood that is perhaps fractious – as all brotherhoods and sisterhoods are – and yet united in a spirit that’s a spirit more of good than ill will; it means that one is marked by history but not totally burdened with it and defined by it; it means that one can expect some basic sense of fair play…I think Americans are committed to a rough-and-ready sense of fair play, and a kind of social egalitarianism, if you will, an egalitarianism of manners. I think that’s the best I can do. (35-36)
When’s the last time you went out of your way at work to help someone?
When someone at work asks you for a significant favor, do you first think about how doing this favor will help you advance your own interests?
Are you frustrated because your boss or co-workers don’t give you the recognition you think you deserve?
In the theologically-grounded and practical book The Gospel at Work (Zondervan, 2013), Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert show why being accepted by Christ means we really are free to serve and do good to others at work without expecting recognition or personal gain. They write:
“It’s incredibly difficult to find someone who simply wants to do good to others. As somebody who is working in order to love God and love others, you can be that person. You should be that person! Why? Because all that you really need is already secured for you by Jesus. It’s nice to be appreciate by your boss and respected by your peers. But everything you think you need that appreciation and respect for – affirmation, love, acceptance, a sense of well-being, future reward – is already yours in Jesus. You are freed from having your identity tied to what people think about you. You are free to serve them without an agenda” (53).
In The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), Tim Keller argues that at the core of marriage is the covenant – a binding promise of lifelong faithfulness. He then explains that the very act of making this promise helps the couple keep that promise. He shows this by quoting Christian theologian and ethicist Lewis Smedes, who offers these words on how our identity is shaped by the promises we make:
“Some people ask who they are and expect their feelings to tell them. But feelings are flickering flames that fade after every fitful stimulus. Some people ask who they are and expect their achievements to tell them. But the things we accomplish always leave a core of character unrevealed. Some people ask who they are and expect visions of their ideal self to tell them. But our visions can only tell us what we want to be, not what we are” (90).
Keller then connects identity to marital love, and even quotes the great political theorist Hannah Arendt (confirming that he is an intellectual’s intellectual):
“It is our promises that give us a stable identity, and without a stable identity, it is impossible to have stable relationships. Hannah Arendt wrote, ‘Without being bound to the fulfillment of our promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wanter helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each person’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities.'” (91)