Acton Institute Powerblog

The State of Nature in New Orleans

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Thomas Hobbes once described human life in the “state of nature” as that of war, in which, in addition to the lack of learning, commerce, and the arts, there is “continual fear, and danger of a violent death. And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The tales coming out of New Orleans give us a glimpse of the truth of Hobbes’ observation. When evacuations were made mandatory prior to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, those who were unable to leave were shepherded in large numbers to the shelter of the Louisiana Superdome.

In a recent New York Times article aptly titled, “Officials Struggle to Reverse a Growing Sense of Anarchy,” the authors write of “Joseph W. Matthews, a deputy fire chief who is the director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness for the city of New Orleans.” Matthews “described harrowing conditions both inside and outside the city’s Superdome and its convention center, facilities that had been intended to shelter victims of the storm and floods but where many people were finding themselves again victimized – by a lack of provisions, by an absence of basic services and by violence.”

“Some people there have not eaten or drunk water for three or four days, which is inexcusable,” Mr. Matthews said. “We need additional troops, food, water.” Mr. Matthews’ final request gets to the heart of Hobbes’ observation: “And we need personnel, law enforcement. This has turned into a situation where the city is being run by the thugs.”

While Hobbes is correct in his diagnosis of the corrupt nature of human beings, he is mistaken in his prescriptive cure. He assumed that the State or government is the solution to the problem of human nature. In an introduction to Hobbes’ Leviathan, the author summarizes the Hobbesian view: “For the sake of peace and order, religion cannot be allowed political power and conscientious authority it has so often claimed. To cure our political ills and contain the state of war we may have to submit to governments we thoroughly dislike. The most prevalent and powerful traits of human nature are unpleasant and socially destructive.”

Hobbes’ anthropology aptly accounts for a fallen human nature of the kind related to us in the Bible. But his soteriology is sorely lacking. Instead of juxtaposing the “conscientious authority” of religion and the curative role of the state, we would do better to arrive at a Christian and biblical account of the function of the State, which is not only powerful and important but also limited and penultimate.

To a certain extent Hobbes and the Christian tradition can agree on the immediate solution to outbreaks of anarchy and chaos such as have been seen over the last few days in New Orleans. Deputy Fire Chief Matthews gets at the need for government intervention to restore law and order. This is at the heart of the biblical depiction of the State, as when the apostle Paul writes of the civil magistrate in Romans 13, “he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4 NIV).

Luther, following this, viewed the role of the State as an agent of God’s “left hand,” which is “God’s rule or freely given grace, which is common to all.” The State, therefore, has the role of preserving the temporal grace of common justice in the world, and deters the outbreak of social unrest and violence.

But the religious view which Hobbes so despises goes beyond this mere left-handed rule for the ultimate cure for human sinfulness. The depraved human must not only be bounded externally by law and authority but must be renewed inwardly. This is represented by Luther as God’s right hand, which is firstly Christ, and secondly the resulting special favor of God on those who are in Christ, “the grace or faithfulness or work of God.” This special grace, salvation by Christ, gives rise to a third sense of God’s right hand, “the awarding of glory in the future.”

So our view of the human person, in depravity and in redemption, must go beyond merely the “left hand.” The situation isn’t an either/or between the State and religion as Hobbes has set up, but rather a both/and. The State must act as an agent of God’s preserving grace, limiting evil and violence while promoting justice, while conversion, the outworking of the Christian faith through evangelism, extends God’s church. Together, the two represent both the left and the right hands of God’s rule.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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