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    Toward an Illiberalism of the Weak

    By Leah Libresco Sargeant

    December 7, 2020

    Available languages: español

    • Robert F

      The stress of liberal modernity on the rights of individuals, at its best, is not meant to make them completely autonomous, which as the article says is impossible, but to free them from the unjust constraints and coercion of a society dominated by those unjustly exercising power over those subject to that power. The traditional small village of pre-industrial times could be as much a social tyranny as the most bureaucratic totalitarianism of modernity or postmodernity, with no mobility and therefore no means of escape for the persecuted and oppressed. It is not a matter of autonomy vs. dependence, but of what kind of society best humanely allows for commonality AND difference.

    • Russell Kendall Carter

      God does not tear us down; God lifts us to heights so that we can becomes servants of His will. The cross, a strong symbol of Christianity, represents oppressive death in a Godless world. It should remain a constant reminder of the shortsightedness of man's obscenity.

    • montse grau

      First, excuse my english. Second. It is good to remind us of our vulnerable humanity and dependence, and to promote a culture of care and acceptation. Third. I think is very bad to link this concepts and truth to political thougth as liberalism and iliberalism. Both are reductionist and so far and from my perspective (I'm fron Spain with a good public health system) both do not promote wellfare. To give place to individuals does not denie community. Iliberalism, as it is called, is used to deny basic human rigths... Reality is complex To link christian values as care to political systems abd traditions has the danger to become idolatry. Thanks.

    • Joe Hine

      Test comment

    • Al Owski

      This is spot-on about the Libertarian illusion of independence, how the primacy of the individual has structured our society. How weakness, infirmity, and poverty are made invisible, by sequestering the very young, the very old, and the very poor out of our sight in nurseries, nursing homes, and ghettos. All the political battles going on right now, are being fought within that framework. The disregard for care workers and educators is testimony to that structure. The struggle for equal rights for women, accessible childcare, takes place within that framework. You can be an independent woman (or man) only for so long before illness and age catch up with you. Jesus told us to let our light shine because the light makes invisible people visible. His encounters with the lame, the blind, the diseased, women, children, the marginalized of his time (and ours) are recorded in Scripture as examples for us. How to let His light become our light, by which we re-humanize ourselves and others. To do that, the independent 'I' has to constantly be on guard for trying to get along by myself. I have to admit my dependence now, even while I am able-bodied. I have to learn to join with others to become the interdependent 'we', to break the toxic habit of independence.

    • Barbara James

      "It would be fairer to say that dependence is our default state, and self-sufficiency the aberration. Our lives begin and (frequently) end in states of near total dependence, and much of the middle is marked by periods of need." My thoughts: I agree that dependence is the natural state of human experience, but I have also seen instances when dependence and becomes a crutch for toxic dysfunction, as those within families who have long outgrown the need for dependence instead hope for and demand that others keep giving, giving, giving, in the name of "family," but the recipients never develop and learn the skills they need to provide for themselves. These aren't disabled people, but people who consistently make bad choices, experience fallout, and then want others to correct their mistakes. Other thoughts on dependence? Toxic family dynamics applies here as well. Cultivating relationships that are built upon mutual dependence require give and take, including an interest in, and devotion to, compromise. If people are still caught up in their "me, me, me" independent mode and think every bit of compromise is a major loss, then dependence won't work. They won't appreciate what they have, but instead demand that others give again and again while they give nothing in return.

    • Hannah Nisly

      I have read and reread Leah Sargent's essay about treasuring the weak and vulnerable. Thank you for this reminder to see human helplessness as God does! A verse from Zechariah 8 comes to mind: "Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit In the streets of Jerusalem, Each one with his staff in his hand Because of great age. The streets of the city Shall be full of boys and girls Playing in its streets." Contrast this with Hitler's vision for Germany: old, unproductive people cleared away to make room for workers in their prime while children are herded together under training to become desirable citizens. Tidy, efficient, progressive- a strong society formed by culling the weak. But this is not God's vision. The true strength of a society lies in its care for the weak. God's holy city does not have streets cleared for commerce. It is not a city of nursing homes and daycares. The oldest and youngest citizens- those whose needs outbalance their productivity- are out in the middle of everyday life. This is the real mark of a thriving city and a flourishing church, when the dependent are welcomed and celebrated.

    • Paul Brandenburg

      Thank you, Leah. The accompanying art is wonder-full, your prose practically poetic, and your lesson brimming over with wisdom. Alleluia!

    • Joe at Plough

      How can we cherish the weak and vulnerable more? First by recognizing that beneath our own façades are messy, complicated lives - dependent on others. And then?

    No man or woman is an island, and no one should aspire to be one, either. That, at the core, is the claim of illiberalism, post-liberalism, or any of the other names given to the movement that pushes back against individualism as an ideal. The liberalism of Locke, deeply woven into American culture and political philosophy, takes the individual as the basic unit of society, while an illiberal view looks to traditions, family, and other institutions whose demands define who we are.

    It always confuses me that illiberalism is taken as a belligerent ideology – both by its detractors and some of its proponents – as though it were rooted in strength and prepared to wield that power against others. It is con­temporary liberalism that begins from an anthropology of independence, and presumes a strength and self-ownership we do not in fact possess.

    The best corrective the growing illiberal enthusiasm can offer is not a rival strength – no fist clenched around a flagpole of any standard. Instead it must offer a re-appreciation of weakness – the kind I see in the chubby, fumbling fingers of my daughter, reaching out to her parents.

    The liberal theory of the independent individual as the basic unit of society is full of exceptions. When my own baby was awaiting birth, paddling away at my insides to strengthen her lungs and her bones, she was decidedly non-autonomous. She is swept out of moral consideration with the claim that she is not a person until she can survive without my involvement.

    a three dimensional feather made from paper

    Yulia Brodskaya, Feather, paper quilling Used with permission.

    Of course, after birth, she gained some abilities, but far fewer than she would need to feed herself (much less navigate the free market). But here, the liberal order is a little more generous. Her infancy, her toddlerhood, her childhood is a rounding error – just a brief, aberrant state before she is enumerated among the radically free.

    Old age is dismissed similarly. When the aged reach a certain point of weakness and inability, some doctors and ethicists are as ready to deny personhood at the end of life as they were at the beginning. And the end of life is, once again, graciously excused as an exceptional time – there was a lot of autonomy in the middle, so the end can’t be held against the individual, or the theory.

    All of this is nonsense. It would be fairer to say that dependence is our default state, and self-sufficiency the aberration. Our lives begin and (frequently) end in states of near total dependence, and much of the middle is marked by periods of need.

    This shouldn’t come as a surprise to the Christian. Even when we are most distant from our dependence on other created beings, we are still dependent on God, who conserves us in being from moment to moment. In a sermon titled “Remembrance of Past Mercies” from Saint John Henry Newman’s collection of “Parochial and Plain Sermons,” he points out that we are triply dependent on God:

    We cannot be our own masters. We are God’s property by creation, by redemption, by regeneration. He has a triple claim upon us. Is it not our happiness thus to view the matter? Is it any happiness, or any comfort, to consider that we are our own? It may be thought so by the young and prosperous.… But as time goes on, they, as all men, will find that independence was not made for man – that it is an unnatural state – [that] may do for a while, but will not carry us on safely to the end. No, we are creatures; and, as being such, we have two duties, to be resigned and to be thankful.

    A world that holds up independence as the ideal offers us two rival duties: to obscure our dependence and to be resentful of it. No woman can lightly assent to the illusion of autonomy. Because a baby is alien to the world of self-ownership, every woman’s citizenship in that imaginary republic is tenuous. A world of autonomous individuals can’t acknowledge both woman and child simultaneously. The sheer amount of work it takes to stifle fertility, put eggs on ice, or pump milk for a baby not welcome outside the home makes it clear that there is something untruthful and sharp-clawed at loose in the world.

    Fear and hatred of weakness and dependence wound the dependent most obviously, but are poison to all, even the people who are strong at present. Without repeated reminders that the broken are beloved, how can we remember who God is?

    Our physical weakness is a training ground for our struggles with moral weakness. There is no physical infirmity we can endure that is more humiliating than our susceptibility to sin. The elderly woman with tremors that leave her unable to lift her cup to her lip is not, in the final sense, weaker than any vigorous young man who finds he must echo Paul and admit, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:19).

    It would be fairer to say that dependence is our default state, and self-sufficiency the aberration.

    There is a blessing in the inescapability of physical weakness that breaks our pride. Sister Teresa de Cartagena, a fifteenth-century Cistercian nun from Spain, wrote; Arboleda de los enfermos (Grove of the Infirm) as a spiritual reflection on her own deafness. Sister Teresa writes: “Divine generosity invites all to this blessed feast, but suffering grabs the infirm by their cloak and makes them enter by force.”

    She interprets Christ’s parable of the great banquet, in which, she says, “the infirm are brought by force to the magnificent feast of eternal health, because their suffering grabs them by the cloak and makes them enter through the door of good works; for if we do not enter through that door, we will not be able to reach the greatest heights of honor, which is to be seated at the table of divine generosity. O blessed convent of the infirm!”

    illustration of an old woman picking up something from the ground

    Yulia Brodskaya, Coins, paper quilling Used with permission.

    So long as we are not currently weak in body, we are tempted to view ourselves as whole. In the absence of visible blemish, we blunt our longing to become whole. And, lest we be tempted to consider the truth, we need only look at how far from us we have pushed those who are weak. We imagine that we can’t possibly be discardable, like they are, and therefore our souls must be unspotted.

    A society that cannot imagine placing the weak at its center, that forgets that society exists for the weak, will be drawn towards the Manichaean modes of cancel culture. We see sin but not grace – we try to find and throw out the bad apples, whom (we think) no one can restore to righteousness. Or we see ourselves mirrored in the most notorious sinners, and work to deny sin, since we don’t want to be cast out with them.

    We cannot structure our politics or our society to serve a totally independent, autonomous person who never has and never will exist.

    Paul points us towards the proper expression of our vulnerability in his second letter to the Corinthians. He struggles with his own thorn, and asks the Lord to spare him. “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:8–9).

    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 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.

    Contributed By LeahLibrescoSargeant Leah Libresco Sargeant

    Leah Libresco Sargeant runs Other Feminisms, a Substack community focused on interdependence.

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