Covenants Transform

“Self-interest generates contracts. In a contract, two or more individuals, each pursuing their own advantage, come together to make an exchange for mutual benefit. I pay my garage mechanic to mend my car. I and others pay our taxes to ensure that we have the social services we need. So there is the commercial contract that creates the market, and the social contract that creates the state. But in both cases, the motivating factor is self-interest. Contracts are about ‘I’. A covenant generates a different kind of relationship altogether. Recall that what makes it different is that in covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives, by pledging their faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can achieve alone. Unlike contracts, which are entered into for the sake of advantage, covenants are moral commitments sustained by loyalty and fidelity, even when they call for sacrifice. They are about you and I coming together to form a ‘We’. A contract is a transaction. A covenant is a relationship. A contract is about interests. A covenant is about identity. That is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform. A covenant creates a moral community. It binds people together in a bond of mutual responsibility and care. It can be vast: there is, I believe, a covenant of human solidarity that binds all seven billion of us alive today to act responsibly towards the environment, human rights and the alleviation of poverty for the sake of generations not yet born. A covenant can also be small and personal: the simplest instance is a marriage when husband and wife pledge themselves to one another in an open-ended commitment to share a life. What matters in a covenant is not how big or small is the group thereby included, but the commitment. It is the undertaking of responsibility for others, knowing that they too undertake responsibility for us. In a covenant, what matters is not wealth or power but the transformation that takes place when I embrace a world larger than the self. Covenants heal what markets and states sometimes harm.”

Morality, Chapter 23, p. 326