Posted by: rogermitchell | July 2, 2019

Love and Democracy

This is the first of several posts inspired by my interaction with Luke Bretherton’s outstanding new book Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019).

Two crucial reframes to recognise

1. Reframing democracy

Democracy, as popularly understood, is a system of government authorised by a majority vote of the general population, often referred to as ‘the people.’ In our Western representative democracies the people vote for individuals who stand for parliament or local councils, and in the case of the UK, as we are all currently very much aware, votes, known as referendums, can also be held on special issues of national importance. This kind of democracy can be highly problematic, as is by now obvious, as it is overlaid on established or reactionary assumptions upheld or promoted by the media and simply assumes the majority outcome is the best one for all concerned. The important contribution of Luke’s book is that it reframes democracy to include the negotiation of a common life as well as a way of structuring government.

On this definition, the Western representative electoral system is a form of statecraft authenticating the vertical exercise of sovereign power, whereas negotiating life in common requires deep listening and relationship between individuals and associations working towards the common good in a particular place. These associations for the common good can consist of a whole variety of institutions, charities, families, businesses, unions, faith communities and individuals. The latter approach to democracy is crucial for today because it has the capacity to bring about the kind of social and cultural changes which are necessary to a just and loving society.  These changes also have the long term potential to transform the deeply held assumptions of everyday life that undergird the current top-down political system.

2. Reframing sovereignty

Sovereignty, similarly to democracy, is generally understood in terms of the authority exercised by government. In terms of our Western nation states this is a hierarchical, vertical exercise of parliamentary power authenticated by regular general elections and the ceremonies of state which in a constitutional monarchy such as the UK is particularly vested in the reigning ‘sovereign’. As those familiar with my research into the genealogy of Western sovereignty will be aware, I see this as rooted in the partnership of the church and the Roman Empire back in the 4th century, and see the democratic development of universal suffrage in Western statecraft as a gradual result of the need of the rich and powerful stakeholders to eke out or multiply sovereignty to the general populace in order to retain as much of it a possible for themselves. (See my book Church, Gospel and Empire: How the Politics of Sovereignty Impregnated the West. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2011.

On this analysis it is easy to see that our contemporary system of representative democracy is only apparently so, because it is overlaid on an established order that inevitably benefits the rich and powerful. Once again, the important contribution of Luke’s book is that it frames a second kind of sovereignty, which he refers to as consociational sovereignty. This is the kind of rule exercised through the conversations, relationships and organised activism of the kind of associations and individuals described above. While I would prefer not to use the word sovereignty to describe this because the baggage it carries can too easily conceal some of the same top-down assumptions as the vertical system, the attempt to extend our understanding of legitimate political authority to include the consociational is a crucial move. I’d rather call it consociational democracy, or better still relational democracy and configure it around the key contemporary concepts of “authority with” contained in the slogan “nothing about us without us is for us”.

So how is this about love?

Democracy defined simply in terms of the statecraft authorised by our current electoral system is highly resistant to love. The kind of sovereignty that has undergirded the history of the West has displaced the politics of neighbour love and well-being for the poor embodied in Jesus and replaced it with the selfish idea of peace through the sovereignty of the rich and powerful. As a result, our Western system has ultimately resisted all attempts from good and true people to change it from within, whatever their party allegiances or otherwise. While I don’t believe we should give up trying, as I have made clear in my recent contribution to AltVisions (, consociational, relational democracy for the common good provides the space for genuinely loving politics. As Luke puts it in the final sentences of his book “Democratic politics thus conceived is a work of love. Absent love and it does not work.”

Comments please!



  1. Its a great piece Roger and for me resonates with the approach of a citizens assembly or citizens jury solution to areas such as Brexit decision making.

  2. Yes it supports that approach. But also calls for long term mobilisation of relational democracy so that it is possible to organise swiftly in the short term when necessary.

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