Saturday, May 15, 2010

Learning from the Free Imperial Cities

I have been known to write about Christian political mythology before. The whole notion might be considered problematic for a number of reasons (as the comments on the above post suggest). However, I find myself continuing to desire some sort of framework for thinking about Christian political philosophy precisely because Scripture provides so little.

To be sure, Scripture tells us a great deal about how to treat our neighbors: we are to love them, give them our coat, pray for them (even if they are our enemies). But Scripture does not tell us what form of government to have or how society should best serve the least among us. There are good reasons for this paucity of policy prescriptions: Scripture is primarily a theological account, not a political one. While Christianity has political implications, it is a religion, not a political party. Moreover, Scripture provides no single blueprint because there is more than one way to organize a just society. Still, I would like a little more to hold onto...

In the medieval era, many thinkers argued that the state should be organized as a monarchy, in imitation of the divine order, wherein Christ is King of the universe. This makes good sense: man is made in the divine image (Gen 1:27), is called to divine perfection (Mt 5:48) and love in imitation of God (Jn 13:34). Why, then, should man not also organize his polities in imitation of the divine?

There are, however, any number of problems associated with monarchy, as America's Founding Fathers pointed out. But does republican government necessarily undermine our understand of ourselves as subjects of Christ the King? I think not. The Cristeros of Mexico, though animated by a keen sense of divine kingship - best exemplified in their battle cry, "¡Viva Cristo Rey!" - were not bent on establishing a monarchy in Mexico. Instead, they wanted a republic that would accord with God's law and His Church.

A medieval model may here prove useful. In the Holy Roman Empire, there were free imperial cities, cities which received their charter directly from the Emperor and owed their allegiance to no intervening lord or margrave. Such cities were often governed by a municipal council. While conditions varied considerably from one city to the next, these councils usually had some sort of republican character, representing the leading families and guilds of the city, frequently through elections. Though they enjoyed extensive privileges, usually including exemption from taxation, such cities were essential to the Emperor, facilitating trade in his Empire and providing loans and other financial services to his imperial administration. Similar cities could be found throughout medieval Europe, sometimes called communes; in England, London enjoyed a similar status.

It strikes me that the notion of a "free imperial city" is a good way for Christians to think about how we organize our polities. On the one hand, the insights of republican government, checks and balances and other modern (and frequently secular) insights should not be discarded. On the other hand, we should never forget that our ultimate allegiance is to our Sovereign, from whom our charter for free government comes. In this light, there is a certain medieval flair to the Founders words: All men are created equal,... endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.... To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.
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