politics banner

Democracy, “The Problem of Minorities,” and the Theology of the Common Good

Democracy is founded on the idea that sovereignty lies with the people. This political system arose in opposition to various forms of monarchy and its hallmark is identified as equality, freedom, and the rule of the law. Particularly during the second half of the 20th century, a wide and increasing acceptance of liberal democracy in world state politics was demonstrated by the significant increase in the number of nations
classified as democratic. This was highlighted in the much-quoted thesis that liberal democracy is the “end point of [hu]mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government.”1 Although that view was heavily criticized, most commentators agree that democracy, for all its weaknesses, is still the best political system developed to date, mainly due to the way it is designed to maximize liberty and equality so they are shared by and beneficial for all.

The Problem of Minorities2
and the Common Good

Recently, some problems of democracy have become apparent. A feature article in The Economist asked “What’s gone wrong with democracy?” while the authors raised a series of challenges to the “end of history” thesis and pointed to a “setback” in democracy developed in the West. They valued democracy as a powerful but imperfect system in need of constant care with checks and balances. They argued that the most important part of the nurture and maintenance of a political system is its care for minorities within the democratic process of majoritarianism, where the view of the majority is determinative and the opinion of minorities is often ignored or suppressed.3 States, whether of liberal (individualistic) or social (communal or cooperative) orientation, often fail to address this issue adequately.4 It is suggested that the “problem of minorities” is among the most contested issues in political life, especially when it comes to questions of equality and freedom, as well as the fact that securing minority rights is not only a matter of toleration but also of positive government action to promote diversity and to affirm the dignity and mutual respect of all citizens.5

How, in a democratic society, do we maintain the freedom and autonomy of individuals, groups, and nations, and yet protect vulnerable minorities and the marginalized? Combining justice and care for minorities with the pursuit of the common good in a democratic society has been an important concern for philosophers and political scientists. The concept of the common good (or common interest), first articulated in Western philosophy as early as Aristotle in his Politics, has long provided a framework for the relationship between the interests of the individual and of the community.6 In recent years, John Rawls made a significant contribution in showing the vital importance of the notion of justice as what holds together a decent society for the least advantaged. His key argument of fairness as a central component is very helpful with respect to the tensions between freedom and equality in the discussion of justice.7 However, Michael Sandel, examining the practical implementation of justice for minorities, argues for a public and collective endeavor of moral reflection on the idea of the common good. He further suggests that since moral questions are not separate from the questions of justice and rights, a just society cannot be achieved simply by maximizing utility or by securing freedom of choice.8 In other words, in addition to the theoretical pursuit for the concepts of justice and the common good, there must be a moral, ethical, and practical framework for the actualization of these ideals into a contemporary society.

In view of the above discussion, I suggest, first, that a just society for minorities in the context of majoritarianism cannot be achieved by the good will of people or the system of liberal principles of democracy, but rather requires a concrete and conscious effort to protect the vulnerable in the society. Second, one must acknowledge that the way in which a society deals with its minorities and the vulnerable is a key test of a mature democracy, and both a philosophical and theological articulation of the common good will enhance this endeavor. Third, justice for minorities must be the overall project of a cohesive society in which the individuals and groups are respected and valued. Fourth, the pursuit of the common good must be articulated through a process of open debate and critical inquiry, and consciously applied through a concrete and consistent agenda. Fifth, the promotion of this common good must occur through creating a political system and procedures and also by promoting social virtue and a change of perceptions.

Here Christianity can play an important role by providing the groundwork for caring for minorities and for the weak and neglected sections of society, as this is repeatedly emphasized in the message of Jesus.9 The pursuit of the common good is based on the notion that society is not a collection of individuals but is a body with shared values, common identities, and mutual commitment, and that this requires active moral and religious engagement in politics. Furthermore, the building of character and virtue in citizens is important because concepts of justice and the common good are closely related to ethics and morality. The protection of minorities and justice for all has been a key concept in the political engagement of the church, both explicitly and implicitly, throughout church history.

Liberation Theology and Public Theology: Challenging the Politics of Majoritarianism

In recent years, two theological discourses in particular have been trying to address the “problem of minorities” as a theological response to the misuse of majoritarianism in the context of liberal democracy. Liberation theology has made clear the church’s stance on the poor and marginalized and has been widely accepted by Christians, especially, though not exclusively, in the more nondemocratic situations. The protagonists of liberation theology took their stand with the poor and marginalized, according to their understanding of the “option for the poor” demonstrated in the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew Bible. They argued that state and society must treat the poor and oppressed, who are victims of a competitive and aggressive market system and of politics of majoritarianism in a democracy, in a supportive and preferential way. Liberation theologians see the “problem of minorities” in a democratic state as mainly an economic and structural one, and call for revolutionary change in the system of capitalism. They challenged the economic abuse of liberal democracy and the capitalist market and made a deep impact on churches; they were also instrumental in the overthrow of elitist regimes in Latin America and parts of Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

While it certainly shares the concern for minorities and the marginalized in modern political and socioeconomic systems, public theology takes a different approach of challenging the monopoly of power over politics in majoritarianism. Drawing from the idea of the “public sphere” as a powerful platform between those who are in authority and those who are in the private sphere or on the margins, public theology seeks to actualize theology as a catalyst to shape this public sphere as a pluralistic space where there is open debate and critical inquiry. This way, whole bodies can engage in this space to reach consensus around the common good. With a biblical understanding of social justice for the poor and marginalized, public theology emphasizes the common good in its methodology as well as for the goal of a just social order for all. This vision of justice is motivated primarily by compassion for those who are weak in a society and seen as victims of injustice. But at the same time, the vision has to be negotiated with policy makers to find common ground. Justice is a relative term, which needs to be constantly assessed and discerned, and, with this understanding, public theology plays an important role in promoting the common good, which attends to the concerns of minorities in politics.

These two theological discourses—liberation theology and public theology—share an opposition to the politics of majoritarianism and aim for the pursuit of the common good in view of a just society, but they are quite different in their methodologies and emphases. For example, the former takes a revolutionary approach with a view to radical change of the system, whereas the latter chooses to take a reforming position with advocacy, debate, protest, and participation. In both cases, there is need for further exploration regarding the practical understanding of the common good, such as questions of how to protect minority rights while maintaining the overall interests and concerns of the majority, and of who should define the common good within a modern plural and secular state, on what grounds and in whose interests. Nevertheless, these two theologies have made a significant contribution to Christian engagement in politics with regard to the “problem of minorities” by articulating the pursuit of a just and fair society on the basis of the theology of the common good. More important, they both see theology as not only “faith seeking understanding” but also “faith seeking action,” as theologians and protagonists have been engaging in the active application of God’s justice for all as the alternate Christian vision in politics and the church.

These two theologies can complement each other for the common good. An example of this in actual politics is the Kairos Document issued in South Africa in 1985, during the time of apartheid. It challenges “state theology,” which supports the status quo by racism and totalitarianism, as well as “church theology,” which lacks an adequate understanding of the sociopolitics of the time. Instead, it seeks “prophetic theology,” which promotes participation in the struggle through action and reflection in the public sphere of politics.10 This prophetic theology, which brings together liberation and public theologies, highlights key aspects of the common good, to which we now turn.

Theology of the Common Good

The theology of the common good was first articulated in Catholic social teaching but soon adopted in Protestant circles as well.11 Although there are various interpretations of the meaning of the common good, Catholic social teaching highlights the following principles: rejection of the extremes of individualism and collectivism (or liberal democracy and social democracy); an emphasis on freedom, equality, and the participation of persons in society as well as the incorporation of human rights; a challenge to the utilitarian approach of a majoritarian view; a vision for a politics of consensus to reach a maximum agreement toward the advantage of all, such as the case of the rule of law; and a requirement that the parties pursue commonality and relationship.12

The idea of the common good is also inspired by the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, according to South African Protestant theologian John de Gruchy, who distinguishes the democratic system, which comprises constitutional principles and procedures, and the democratic vision, which is the hope for a society of equality, freedom, and justice. In his view, the democratic vision was emphasized in the message of the prophets of Israel, including Jesus, and is manifested in the reign of God’s shalom. De Gruchy argues that, in order to establish a just world order, the prophetic tradition provides the vision for social justice for the oppressed, the poor, and other victims of society so that “all people are equally respected as bearers of God’s image.”13 The God of Israel is consistently seen as a God of justice whose people ought to be just. The prophetic tradition demonstrates that justice is a vital theological concern as well as a moral concern.14 In the same vein, Jim Wallis insists that the common good is a “new ethic of civility” and a “vision drawn from the heart of our religious traditions that allows us to make our faith public but not narrowly partisan.” For Wallis, the idea of the common good derives from Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors, which Wallis regards as “the most transformational social ethic,” and which implies that our treatment toward the most vulnerable is the “moral test” of any society’s integrity.15

Thus, seeking the common good must first center around concerns for those vulnerable, weak, and neglected sections of a society, such as orphans, widows, and resident aliens, as shown in the message of the Hebrew Bible.16 In this sense, biblical justice-seeking does not necessarily mean treating all the members of a society equally, but rather providing support and space for the minorities in the society. This is discussed in theological writings as “open-eyed compassion,” “compassionate justice,” and “just mercy” in order to achieve the common good of the whole society.17 Second, seeking the common good has to do with knowing and relating rightly to God—it is the natural outcome of our deep devotion to God and is the very heart of knowing God. Because pursuing the common good is a relational reality and not a stand-alone idea, compassion and mercy are key biblical demands for God’s people to practice towards the vulnerable in the society. Third, the prophetic message constantly reminds us to act on the basis of our experience and knowledge of God. Our understanding of seeking the common good as well as justice does not always translate into a concrete and tangible process or result. The key issues here are how society and church can together provide a framework for the people to act justly and, if we use de Gruchy’s phraseology, in what way the political system might meet Christian vision.

Conversation between Politics and Theology on the Problem of Minorities

The theology of the common good provides alternative approaches to the problem of minorities and makes meaningful conversation between politics and theology. Further, the theology of the common good is based on the concept of the dignity of human beings, which is grounded in the biblical understanding of humans as created in the image of God. In order to continue to promote this dignity, any democratic state should provide mechanisms for equality and freedom of individuals, and create community for the maximum consensus for the common good. The key issue of this approach is that no one party determines what the common good is for a particular group, wider society, or nation; rather, determining the common good is a process and an ongoing project, which constantly seeks the good of the majority while protecting minorities, and which has to be constantly negotiated and revised. Together with the key concepts of subsidiarity and solidarity, the theology of the common good provides some alternatives within contemporary political and economic systems, and its particular strength lies in its challenge to majoritarianism and the political dichotomy of liberal democracy and social democracy. The practical implementation of the common good in real politics and economics requires robust mechanisms to counterbalance the misuse of state power or the market system that we have seen in some authoritarian community states, as well as the aggressive and individualistic capitalist markets in liberal democracy.

Freedom, equality, and the rule of law are indeed key aspirations for modern liberal democracy that enable human society to flourish, but society must also deal with the “problem of minorities.” This is not just a matter of tolerance, compassion, or charity from the majority or from those who have authority, wealth, and power. Rather, a political system must be provided to deal with this provision as well as a Christian vision of dignity for the “least of these” (Matt 25:40). As David Hollenbach convincingly argues, “The choice today is not between freedom and community, but between a society based on reciprocal respect and solidarity, and a society that leaves many people behind,” and this choice will have a “powerful effect on the well-being of us all.”18

Written By

Sebastian C. H. Kim is assistant provost for the Korean Studies Center and professor of theology and public life at Fuller Seminary, coming from York St John University in the UK, where he held the chair in theology and public life in the School of Humanities, Religion, and Philosophy for 12 years. He was previously director of the Christianity in Asia project and taught world Christianity at the University of Cambridge. His scholarship focuses on public theology, world Christianity, Asian theologies, and peacebuilding; he has authored several books including A History of Korean Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Theology in the Public Sphere: Public Theology as a Catalyst for Open Debate (SCM Press, 2011).

Democracy is founded on the idea that sovereignty lies with the people. This political system arose in opposition to various forms of monarchy and its hallmark is identified as equality, freedom, and the rule of the law. Particularly during the second half of the 20th century, a wide and increasing acceptance of liberal democracy in world state politics was demonstrated by the significant increase in the number of nations
classified as democratic. This was highlighted in the much-quoted thesis that liberal democracy is the “end point of [hu]mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government.”1 Although that view was heavily criticized, most commentators agree that democracy, for all its weaknesses, is still the best political system developed to date, mainly due to the way it is designed to maximize liberty and equality so they are shared by and beneficial for all.

The Problem of Minorities2
and the Common Good

Recently, some problems of democracy have become apparent. A feature article in The Economist asked “What’s gone wrong with democracy?” while the authors raised a series of challenges to the “end of history” thesis and pointed to a “setback” in democracy developed in the West. They valued democracy as a powerful but imperfect system in need of constant care with checks and balances. They argued that the most important part of the nurture and maintenance of a political system is its care for minorities within the democratic process of majoritarianism, where the view of the majority is determinative and the opinion of minorities is often ignored or suppressed.3 States, whether of liberal (individualistic) or social (communal or cooperative) orientation, often fail to address this issue adequately.4 It is suggested that the “problem of minorities” is among the most contested issues in political life, especially when it comes to questions of equality and freedom, as well as the fact that securing minority rights is not only a matter of toleration but also of positive government action to promote diversity and to affirm the dignity and mutual respect of all citizens.5

How, in a democratic society, do we maintain the freedom and autonomy of individuals, groups, and nations, and yet protect vulnerable minorities and the marginalized? Combining justice and care for minorities with the pursuit of the common good in a democratic society has been an important concern for philosophers and political scientists. The concept of the common good (or common interest), first articulated in Western philosophy as early as Aristotle in his Politics, has long provided a framework for the relationship between the interests of the individual and of the community.6 In recent years, John Rawls made a significant contribution in showing the vital importance of the notion of justice as what holds together a decent society for the least advantaged. His key argument of fairness as a central component is very helpful with respect to the tensions between freedom and equality in the discussion of justice.7 However, Michael Sandel, examining the practical implementation of justice for minorities, argues for a public and collective endeavor of moral reflection on the idea of the common good. He further suggests that since moral questions are not separate from the questions of justice and rights, a just society cannot be achieved simply by maximizing utility or by securing freedom of choice.8 In other words, in addition to the theoretical pursuit for the concepts of justice and the common good, there must be a moral, ethical, and practical framework for the actualization of these ideals into a contemporary society.

In view of the above discussion, I suggest, first, that a just society for minorities in the context of majoritarianism cannot be achieved by the good will of people or the system of liberal principles of democracy, but rather requires a concrete and conscious effort to protect the vulnerable in the society. Second, one must acknowledge that the way in which a society deals with its minorities and the vulnerable is a key test of a mature democracy, and both a philosophical and theological articulation of the common good will enhance this endeavor. Third, justice for minorities must be the overall project of a cohesive society in which the individuals and groups are respected and valued. Fourth, the pursuit of the common good must be articulated through a process of open debate and critical inquiry, and consciously applied through a concrete and consistent agenda. Fifth, the promotion of this common good must occur through creating a political system and procedures and also by promoting social virtue and a change of perceptions.

Here Christianity can play an important role by providing the groundwork for caring for minorities and for the weak and neglected sections of society, as this is repeatedly emphasized in the message of Jesus.9 The pursuit of the common good is based on the notion that society is not a collection of individuals but is a body with shared values, common identities, and mutual commitment, and that this requires active moral and religious engagement in politics. Furthermore, the building of character and virtue in citizens is important because concepts of justice and the common good are closely related to ethics and morality. The protection of minorities and justice for all has been a key concept in the political engagement of the church, both explicitly and implicitly, throughout church history.

Liberation Theology and Public Theology: Challenging the Politics of Majoritarianism

In recent years, two theological discourses in particular have been trying to address the “problem of minorities” as a theological response to the misuse of majoritarianism in the context of liberal democracy. Liberation theology has made clear the church’s stance on the poor and marginalized and has been widely accepted by Christians, especially, though not exclusively, in the more nondemocratic situations. The protagonists of liberation theology took their stand with the poor and marginalized, according to their understanding of the “option for the poor” demonstrated in the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew Bible. They argued that state and society must treat the poor and oppressed, who are victims of a competitive and aggressive market system and of politics of majoritarianism in a democracy, in a supportive and preferential way. Liberation theologians see the “problem of minorities” in a democratic state as mainly an economic and structural one, and call for revolutionary change in the system of capitalism. They challenged the economic abuse of liberal democracy and the capitalist market and made a deep impact on churches; they were also instrumental in the overthrow of elitist regimes in Latin America and parts of Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

While it certainly shares the concern for minorities and the marginalized in modern political and socioeconomic systems, public theology takes a different approach of challenging the monopoly of power over politics in majoritarianism. Drawing from the idea of the “public sphere” as a powerful platform between those who are in authority and those who are in the private sphere or on the margins, public theology seeks to actualize theology as a catalyst to shape this public sphere as a pluralistic space where there is open debate and critical inquiry. This way, whole bodies can engage in this space to reach consensus around the common good. With a biblical understanding of social justice for the poor and marginalized, public theology emphasizes the common good in its methodology as well as for the goal of a just social order for all. This vision of justice is motivated primarily by compassion for those who are weak in a society and seen as victims of injustice. But at the same time, the vision has to be negotiated with policy makers to find common ground. Justice is a relative term, which needs to be constantly assessed and discerned, and, with this understanding, public theology plays an important role in promoting the common good, which attends to the concerns of minorities in politics.

These two theological discourses—liberation theology and public theology—share an opposition to the politics of majoritarianism and aim for the pursuit of the common good in view of a just society, but they are quite different in their methodologies and emphases. For example, the former takes a revolutionary approach with a view to radical change of the system, whereas the latter chooses to take a reforming position with advocacy, debate, protest, and participation. In both cases, there is need for further exploration regarding the practical understanding of the common good, such as questions of how to protect minority rights while maintaining the overall interests and concerns of the majority, and of who should define the common good within a modern plural and secular state, on what grounds and in whose interests. Nevertheless, these two theologies have made a significant contribution to Christian engagement in politics with regard to the “problem of minorities” by articulating the pursuit of a just and fair society on the basis of the theology of the common good. More important, they both see theology as not only “faith seeking understanding” but also “faith seeking action,” as theologians and protagonists have been engaging in the active application of God’s justice for all as the alternate Christian vision in politics and the church.

These two theologies can complement each other for the common good. An example of this in actual politics is the Kairos Document issued in South Africa in 1985, during the time of apartheid. It challenges “state theology,” which supports the status quo by racism and totalitarianism, as well as “church theology,” which lacks an adequate understanding of the sociopolitics of the time. Instead, it seeks “prophetic theology,” which promotes participation in the struggle through action and reflection in the public sphere of politics.10 This prophetic theology, which brings together liberation and public theologies, highlights key aspects of the common good, to which we now turn.

Theology of the Common Good

The theology of the common good was first articulated in Catholic social teaching but soon adopted in Protestant circles as well.11 Although there are various interpretations of the meaning of the common good, Catholic social teaching highlights the following principles: rejection of the extremes of individualism and collectivism (or liberal democracy and social democracy); an emphasis on freedom, equality, and the participation of persons in society as well as the incorporation of human rights; a challenge to the utilitarian approach of a majoritarian view; a vision for a politics of consensus to reach a maximum agreement toward the advantage of all, such as the case of the rule of law; and a requirement that the parties pursue commonality and relationship.12

The idea of the common good is also inspired by the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, according to South African Protestant theologian John de Gruchy, who distinguishes the democratic system, which comprises constitutional principles and procedures, and the democratic vision, which is the hope for a society of equality, freedom, and justice. In his view, the democratic vision was emphasized in the message of the prophets of Israel, including Jesus, and is manifested in the reign of God’s shalom. De Gruchy argues that, in order to establish a just world order, the prophetic tradition provides the vision for social justice for the oppressed, the poor, and other victims of society so that “all people are equally respected as bearers of God’s image.”13 The God of Israel is consistently seen as a God of justice whose people ought to be just. The prophetic tradition demonstrates that justice is a vital theological concern as well as a moral concern.14 In the same vein, Jim Wallis insists that the common good is a “new ethic of civility” and a “vision drawn from the heart of our religious traditions that allows us to make our faith public but not narrowly partisan.” For Wallis, the idea of the common good derives from Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors, which Wallis regards as “the most transformational social ethic,” and which implies that our treatment toward the most vulnerable is the “moral test” of any society’s integrity.15

Thus, seeking the common good must first center around concerns for those vulnerable, weak, and neglected sections of a society, such as orphans, widows, and resident aliens, as shown in the message of the Hebrew Bible.16 In this sense, biblical justice-seeking does not necessarily mean treating all the members of a society equally, but rather providing support and space for the minorities in the society. This is discussed in theological writings as “open-eyed compassion,” “compassionate justice,” and “just mercy” in order to achieve the common good of the whole society.17 Second, seeking the common good has to do with knowing and relating rightly to God—it is the natural outcome of our deep devotion to God and is the very heart of knowing God. Because pursuing the common good is a relational reality and not a stand-alone idea, compassion and mercy are key biblical demands for God’s people to practice towards the vulnerable in the society. Third, the prophetic message constantly reminds us to act on the basis of our experience and knowledge of God. Our understanding of seeking the common good as well as justice does not always translate into a concrete and tangible process or result. The key issues here are how society and church can together provide a framework for the people to act justly and, if we use de Gruchy’s phraseology, in what way the political system might meet Christian vision.

Conversation between Politics and Theology on the Problem of Minorities

The theology of the common good provides alternative approaches to the problem of minorities and makes meaningful conversation between politics and theology. Further, the theology of the common good is based on the concept of the dignity of human beings, which is grounded in the biblical understanding of humans as created in the image of God. In order to continue to promote this dignity, any democratic state should provide mechanisms for equality and freedom of individuals, and create community for the maximum consensus for the common good. The key issue of this approach is that no one party determines what the common good is for a particular group, wider society, or nation; rather, determining the common good is a process and an ongoing project, which constantly seeks the good of the majority while protecting minorities, and which has to be constantly negotiated and revised. Together with the key concepts of subsidiarity and solidarity, the theology of the common good provides some alternatives within contemporary political and economic systems, and its particular strength lies in its challenge to majoritarianism and the political dichotomy of liberal democracy and social democracy. The practical implementation of the common good in real politics and economics requires robust mechanisms to counterbalance the misuse of state power or the market system that we have seen in some authoritarian community states, as well as the aggressive and individualistic capitalist markets in liberal democracy.

Freedom, equality, and the rule of law are indeed key aspirations for modern liberal democracy that enable human society to flourish, but society must also deal with the “problem of minorities.” This is not just a matter of tolerance, compassion, or charity from the majority or from those who have authority, wealth, and power. Rather, a political system must be provided to deal with this provision as well as a Christian vision of dignity for the “least of these” (Matt 25:40). As David Hollenbach convincingly argues, “The choice today is not between freedom and community, but between a society based on reciprocal respect and solidarity, and a society that leaves many people behind,” and this choice will have a “powerful effect on the well-being of us all.”18

Sebastian Kim (headshot)

Sebastian C. H. Kim is assistant provost for the Korean Studies Center and professor of theology and public life at Fuller Seminary, coming from York St John University in the UK, where he held the chair in theology and public life in the School of Humanities, Religion, and Philosophy for 12 years. He was previously director of the Christianity in Asia project and taught world Christianity at the University of Cambridge. His scholarship focuses on public theology, world Christianity, Asian theologies, and peacebuilding; he has authored several books including A History of Korean Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Theology in the Public Sphere: Public Theology as a Catalyst for Open Debate (SCM Press, 2011).

Up Next
Fuller Magazine

Maria Fee, director of Brehm Cascadia, shows how the arts can inspire Christian liturgies of reconciliation—fostering people’s connections with their neighbors and with God