By Michael Nichols
Loneliness and social isolation increasingly plague societies today. We have fewer and fewer friends, and the ones we do have increasingly vote and think just like ourselves. The reasons for each individual’s isolation vary, but the glaring existence of the problem is hard to deny. This epidemic has gotten so severe that in Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness at the beginning of 2018. On this side of the pond, our social isolation has reached a such a magnitude that it has been characterized as a national public health crisis. We have fewer friends and fewer deep friendships.
Citizenship, though we often fail to realize it, actually belongs to the class of friendship. It is not like other kinds of friendships, perhaps the most prominent difference being that we generally do not get to choose our fellow citizens, but it is friendship nonetheless. So if we view citizenship as a kind of friendship, and it is true that meaningful friendships are on the decline, perhaps there is a correlation between decreasing relational connections and increasing political polarization. When the bonds that bind us together are weak or nonexistent, we do not have regard for one another. The isolation that plagues us leads to injustice – a failure to give one another what we are due – by nature of the fact that we aren’t in relationship with one another. Loneliness isn’t just an interpersonal issue; it’s a justice issue.
Justice is not exclusively secured by the government. The state has an important role to play in securing justice, which Richard Mouw has sketched out in this article. Drawing on theologian Abraham Kuyper, Mouw explains that governments have a responsibility to settle disputes between parties, defend the weak, and maintain public goods like roads, parks, and schools through funding. Yet Mouw also points out that there are real limits to what the state can or should do when it comes to creating a just society. Citizens, especially Christian citizens, must carry out the task of advocacy on behalf of others. We should foster public justice by being good civic friends to those in our political communities.
Implications for Justice
The plotline of the Bible underwrites the claim that Christians ought to be good civic friends as a means of seeking justice. One of the chief means God uses to redeem creation and fallen humanity is friendship. Scripture tells one, grand story about God pursuing sinful people who have privatized the goods of creation by using those goods for wrong ends. God creates a good world and good people in his image. A friendly concord defines the relationships among God, humanity, animals, and the rest of creation in Eden. From Genesis 3 onward, humans are at odds with God, one another, and the rest of creation.
Yet God’s politics rely on friendship. In fact, God makes friends with fallen humans in order to establish his kingdom. In Genesis 12, YHWH sets about establishing a great nation (a political entity) through Abram by befriending the future father of Israel (Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). Friendship threads through the entire Old Testament. It even keeps the story alive at key points. For example, Ruth - an unlikely Moabite woman whose name means ‘friend’ - pledges herself to Naomi in the unlikeliest of friendships, and through Ruth the messianic line is preserved. And Jonathan, the son of Saul the king of Israel, shares such a tight bond with David as to scheme against his own father to save David (1 Samuel 20). Ultimately Jesus Christ becomes the archetype for friendship by laying down his life for his friends and revealing that there is no greater love (John 15:13-15). The gospels actually hinge on a great irony: the Lord who became a friend of humanity in order to redeem them as his co-regents on earth, is betrayed by his friend and crucified by the false lord, Caesar. (Thankfully, Jesus made no friend of death, but instead conquered it.) So in God’s politics, friendship plays a pivotal role in forging bonds, showing love, and securing justice. It’s woven into the entire storyline of Scripture. When we consider our attempts to seek public justice now as we await the Kingdom come, let us not gloss over the essential, enduring role of friendship. When we see the friendship in decay, we should recognize this has implications for justice.
This decay has been well documented and, unfortunately, a long time coming. Nearly twenty years ago, sociologist Robert Putnam popularized the term, “bowling alone” with his book of the same title. He documents how people used to join social clubs like bowling leagues with friends and co-workers; however, since the advent of the in-home television, forms of in-person social interaction have decreased. His coined term captures the notion that Americans have steadily lost social capital and interpersonal relationships that are so crucial to a healthy society and to healthy individuals.
If we have fewer and fewer meaningful relationships in which we understand the needs and concerns of others, then we might increasingly be voting alone, too. When we cast our ballots in these conditions, we attend primarily to our specific needs, concerns, and desires. The issues that our fellow citizens across town or across the country face – whether education funding, paid family leave, or criminal justice reform – never cross our minds because those people aren’t within the sphere of our regard. The lawyer in Matthew’s gospel attempted justifying himself by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” We face the same question, not because we seek to justify ourselves, but because we no longer know the people we are commanded to love--even when, or perhaps especially when we enter the voting booth.
Thin social lives and depleted relationships contribute to increased political polarization and partisanship. In 2017, one year after the 2016 presidential election, The Atlantic published an article observing that our political divides had only intensified over the past two years. The author noted, “The more that Americans’ social lives and identity become intertwined with partisan beliefs, the more pressure people will face to adopt partisan viewpoints rather than risk alienating close friends and their broader social network.” So this problem becomes a vicious, self-propagating cycle. When friendships are hard to come by, and our allegiances are defined by partisan commitments, then we are less willing to deviate from those partisan commitments or consider the views of others, lest we jeopardize the few meaningful relationships we have.
By sticking close to our political tribe, we dangerously narrow our attention to only our specific concerns. A set of friendships that never cross ideological or partisan divides becomes myopic. When this happens, we have a hard time fulfilling our social responsibilities and giving others unlike us their due. In essence, we have a hard time loving our neighbor. Conversely, recognizing our fellow citizens as friends, as people whom we ought to care about and care for, prompts us to seek justice for them, to, as Mouw says, advocate on their behalf.
Friendship of this kind need not be idealized or romanticized. It is cultivated in the mundane, in simple practices. It’s a matter of sharing—food, heartbreak, music, wine, triumphs, games, time, material possessions, work. Forging friendships is an inherently public act. It involves bringing others into one’s sphere of regard, and being brought into others’ spheres of regard in return. It means listening to the needs and concerns of others and considering those when we enter the ballot box. It means advocating in city hall or the state capitol on behalf of others, even if their issues are not our own. To fulfill our social responsibilities, and to love our neighbors well, we should attend to the inseparable link between friendship and justice. While the bonds of friendship are fraying, we ought not be surprised at the injustices that result. In response, we should no longer call one another merely citizens, but friends, and imitate the friendship first extended to us by God in Christ.
Michael Nichols is a husband, father, and graduate of the University of Sioux Falls. He is currently completing an M.A. in theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.