Leah Libresco Sargeant on an “illiberalism of the weak”

To give an honest accounting of ourselves, we must begin with our weakness and fragility. We cannot structure our politics or our society to serve a totally independent, autonomous person [which is the person imagined by liberalism] who never has and never will exist. Repeating that lie will leave us bereft: first, of sympathy from our friends when our physical weakness breaks the implicit promise that no one can keep, and second, of hope, when our moral weakness should lead us, like the prodigal, to rush back into the arms of the Father who remains faithful. Our present politics can only be challenged by an illiberalism that cherishes the weak and centers its policies on their needs and dignity. 

This is a strong and vital word. But genuinely to hear it we will have to dethrone the two idols that almost everyone with a political opinion worships: My People and Winning. The goal of almost every political activist and pundit is the same: My people must win, and those who are not my people must lose. Do not be deceived by talk of the “common good,” because the often quite explicit message of the common-good conservatives is: My people are the ones who know what the common good is, and that common good can only be achieved if my people win. A politics of weakness and dependence, a politics of bearing one another’s burdens, can only begin when those two idols are slain. 

UPDATE: Rowan Williams, from a review of God: An Anatomy, by Francesca Stavrakopoulou: 

Stavrakopoulou … takes Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous picture of the dead (and prematurely decaying) body of Christ as illustrating the way in which Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy ends up in a conspicuously unbiblical position, presenting human bodies as “repulsive” (her word), unfit to portray the divine. But – apart from the fact that in Holbein’s lifetime the glory of the human form as representing divinity was being reaffirmed by artists in southern Europe as never before – the point of a picture like this, or of any other representation of the torment and suffering of Jesus, was to say that “the divine” does not shrink from or abandon the human body when it is humiliated and tortured.

In contrast to an archaic, religious sacralising of the perfect, glowing, muscular, dominant body, there is a central strand in Jewish and Christian imagination which insists that bodies marked by weakness, failure, the violence of others, disease or disability are not somehow shut out from a share in human – and divine – significance. They have value and meaning; they may judge us and call us to action. The biblical texts are certainly not short of the mythical glorifications of male power that Stavrakopoulou discusses; but they also repeatedly explore divine solidarity with vulnerable bodies, powerless bodies. Is this a less “real” dimension of the Bible? Even a reader with no theological commitments might pause before writing it off.