Category Archives: Social Ethics

The Logic of Social Suicide

Cultural observers are saying that we live in a time of increased division and social strife. Political discourse has degenerated into name calling, distorted quotes, misrepresentation, deep fakes, down right lies, betrayal, opportunism, insincere and impossible promises, and catchy sound bites. Some people blame the current president and others the former one. Still others blame the Electoral College, the corrupt media, the schools and universities, the coastal elites or the common folk of fly-over country, the churches, or social media. However I’d like to propose a different diagnosis: modern society is built a foundation of sand. Within its genetic makeup there is a principle of dissolution that will enviably work its own destruction.

The Killer Gene

In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas argued that, in order to be just, human laws must be based on the moral law, which in turn is based on the eternal law of God’s being and will. Moral law is vastly more expansive and radical than human law. But human law should conform to the moral law in so far as it is possible to enforce without doing more harm than good. And some aspects of the moral law are not humanly enforceable. Hence there will never be a human society that is governed wholly by the moral or eternal law.

Modern political thinkers in the 1600s shifted the legitimating basis of human law from moral and eternal law to a human agreement or contract made for mutual benefit. The fundamental principle in this theory is individual liberty, which can be limited only by the liberty of others. In 1860, John Stuart Mill put it this way: laws should allow maximum liberty and exclude only behaviors that cause harm to others. Or in the language of popular culture, “You should be able to do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.” Hence modern society recognizes no moral principle above human desire. An individual’s desires can be legitimately limited in law only by the desires of other individuals. Laws function to harmonize the conflict of desires.

Contemporary society accepts and builds on the modern understanding of the function of law, but it moves two steps further. (1) It transforms the legal principle of maximum liberty in pursuing desire into a moral principle. Originally, the principle of maximizing liberty was proposed as a rule for making laws. It was not proposed as a moral principle to bind and guide the conscience; for it had no advice about what is good and right. It was not concerned with virtue and vice but with harmful behaviors. But contemporary society views pursuing one’s desires and approving of others’ pursuit their desires as a moral duty or even a sacred duty. It is good and right to pursue whatever one desires as long as you celebrate as good and right whatever other people want to pursue. And if you disapprove of others’ choices you are violating your moral duty and have become a bad person deserving of condemnation. Unlike legislated law, which is limited to legal judgments about enforceable rules, morality is all-encompassing. Negative judgments can be made about the character and the otherwise legal behavior of others. One can show one’s moral disapproval in words and behaviors that are not illegal and do not have the force of law: protest, shunning, boycotts, and various forms of verbal “calling out.”

(2) The second step contemporary society takes beyond the original maximum liberty principle is this: after expanding the maximum liberty principle from the legal to moral sphere, contemporary society begins the process of reverse transferal. It is so outraged by the legal but “immoral” behavior of those who do not conform to its new morality that it demands that its morality be legislated into law. The quest for individual liberty circled around to become suppression of individual liberty. The very ones who protested so loudly against imposing morality on others now demand that their morality be imposed on everyone. What began as an effort to reduce the sphere covered by laws and increase private liberty has become the cry for more laws and less liberty. The protest against moralist and judgmental attitudes has become moralistic and judgmental. The limited legal sphere became the unlimited moral sphere, which returned as the unlimited legal sphere!

Conclusion

When a society founds itself on individual desire as its sacred principle and basic moral good, it has already set its trajectory toward failure. Human desire is unprincipled, omni-directional, and chaotic. Human beings in their curiosity can desire anything! Human desires conflict with each other and with the desires of others.  It should not be surprising, then, that contemporary people cannot engage in civil discussion about important topics, because, according to contemporary theory, all speech arises from and aims at fulfillment of individual desires.  Where there is no truth and reason is not honored, alliances are possible but agreements are not.

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Social Conflict, Original Sin, and the Libertarian Ideal

I’ve been in a reflective mood lately, quietly observing the commotion taking place around me as if I were a visitor from another planet moving unnoticed through the frenzied crowds. I’ve watched the news, read the morning newspaper, and lurked on social media as if I were sifting through ancient documents hoping to make sense of bygone era. The question that guides my search is this: What is the passion that animates contemporary society, the unexamined, deep-down belief shared by nearly all people? What is the ideal that gives meaning to modern social movements and counter-movements and drives people into the streets or into voting booths?

The Freedom Ideal

I’ve concluded that the bedrock belief that excites modern people into action is this: True Freedom is the right and power to will and do as one pleases. For modern people, herein lies true human dignity. Any restraint on this right and power limits freedom and hence slights dignity. And since we desire and act for our happiness, any restraint on our freedom also limits our happiness. I think analysis would reveal that this belief drives all modern social change and resistance to social change. As an ethical ideal, it goes almost unchallenged in our culture. Rhetorical appeals to freedom resonate powerfully in the modern soul. And any rhetoric that seems to restrict freedom will be rejected as reactionary and evil.

The Grand Arbiter

Of course, everyone realizes that civilization would be impossible without limits on freedom. One person’s desires and actions inevitably conflict with those of others. This conflict gives rise to another type of rhetoric, the rhetoric of civilization. The rhetoric of civilization calls for limits on freedom for the sake of freedom. Notice that even the rhetoric of civilization appeals to the modern ideal of freedom. So, I think I am correct to contend that for the modern person the ideal of freedom is basic and civilization is a means to that end.

Hence the major function of the modern state—supposedly a neutral and impersonal arbiter—is to harmonize the completing desires and actions of those who live within it. Each person, as a center of unlimited freedom, is by definition a competitor of every other person. Other people are limits or means to my freedom, dignity, and happiness. And everyone looks to the state to resolve conflict.

But of course the state is not a neutral and impersonal arbiter. It’s not a justice machine that always finds the perfect balance between freedom and freedom. The ideal of civilization is always embodied in a particular government and governments are staffed by politicians. And modern politicians get elected by promising to expand or protect freedom. That is to say, modern political rhetoric appeals either to the ideal of freedom or the ideal of civilization as means of persuasion. On the one hand, everyone wants maximum freedom for themselves and responds positively to promises of expanded liberty. But, when people come to think their freedom is being restricted by the actions of others, they respond appreciatively to the rhetoric of civilization.

Social Conflict

The conflicts we are experiencing today in society among various parties and interest groups are nothing but manifestations of the false and unworkable belief at the root of modern culture: True Freedom is the right and power to will and do as one pleases. Each party jockeys for the political influence necessary to draw the line between freedom and freedom favorably to their own desires. And each uses as occasion demands the rhetoric of freedom or the rhetoric of civilization to persuade public opinion. We can see clearly why it is unworkable. But why is it false and how did our civilization come to accept a false and unworkable ideal?

Original Sin

The doctrine of original sin was one of the first orthodox Christian doctrines rejected by architects of the 17th century Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau summarized the Enlightenment attitude when he proclaimed, “Let us lay it down as an incontrovertible rule that the first impulses of nature are always right; there is no original sin in the human heart….”(Emile or On Education, 1762). It’s not difficult to see why the Enlightenment had to reject the doctrine of original sin. It contradicted its understanding of freedom as the right and power to will and do as one pleases.

What, then, is the Christian doctrine of original sin? I cannot explain the whole story at this time but here is what it says about human capacity: Human beings are born into this world desiring, seeking, willing, and determined to pursue what they perceive as their private interest in ignorance and defiance of the truly good and right. You can see why the Christian doctrine of original sin offends modern sensibilities. It implies that even if human beings possessed the right and power to do as they please—which they do not—they still would not possess true freedom. According to the New Testament, you are not free in the truest sense unless you are free from the sinful impulse to will only your private interests. The doctrine of original sin asserts that our free will needs freeing from wrong desires and for the truly good and right. And we can acquire this freedom only as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Now let me bring this essay to a sharply pointed conclusion. For 300 years our culture has been animated by a false definition of freedom taken as the highest ideal of human life. From a Christian point of view, the modern definition of freedom is false because it claims falsely to be the true and highest form of freedom. But Christianity asserts that there is a higher freedom, freedom from the innate impulse to pursue one’s selfish interests as the highest motive for action. And here is the sharpest point of the sword: judged by the Christian understanding of freedom, the modern ideal of freedom—the right and power to will and do as one pleases—comes very close to the definition of original sin! Ironically, in its denial of the doctrine of original sin, the Enlightenment made the fact of original sin its ideal and animating principle. As the Apostle Paul, Augustine, and many other theologians observed, sin is often punished with more sin.

 

Social Justice and The Great-Cause Fallacy

It seems that everyone who’s anyone these days has attached themselves to some great cause. In introducing yourself to another person you give your name, where you work, and the cause that drives you into the streets. You’re nobody if you’ve not founded a nonprofit organization or haven’t been arrested for chaining yourself to the White House fence or at least have “Activist” printed on your business card. You’ve gotta fight for something—for social justice for the oppressed, for the homeless, for the poor, for the trees, for open spaces, for endangered species, for the climate, for gun rights, for gun control, for children’s rights, parents’ rights, for women’s rights…for somebody’s rights! It’s “Up with…” or “Down with…” or “Out with… or “In with….”

No one presents their cause as evil. No one protests, “Down with justice, up with injustice!” Have you ever seen anyone carrying a sign that says, “Tax the Poor!”? No group occupies the halls of state capitols chanting, “Trash the environment!” No. We adopt causes we think are good, noble, and great; or at least causes we can present as good, noble, and great. Perhaps it should not escape our notice that by adopting a good and just cause I demonstrate to myself and others that I am a good and just person. I present myself as a defender of the defenseless and a champion of the oppressed. I set myself in opposition to the oppressors and polluters, the privileged, the greedy, and the selfish. I manifest my love for the beneficiaries of my zeal for whom I sacrifice an evening a week and a weekend a month. And I am righteously outraged at the evil doers who exploit those I love so much, and I am disgusted by those who turn a blind eye to such injustice. If such a self-presentation were a prayer it would go like this:

“God, I thank thee that I am not like other people—greedy, racist, unpatriotic, or lazy! I am a vegetarian, I recycle, I drive a Prius. I stand for the National Anthem and pay my dues to the NRA” (See Luke 18:9-12).

Am I being judgmental? Then let me bring in a witness. What about the great-cause activists’ claim to love those for whom they fight? The letter we know as 1 John has much to say about loving others and loving God:

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).

Many great-cause activists resonate with John’s critique of the religious hypocrite who claims to love God but doesn’t love other human beings. But the reverse principle is just as true. If you claim to love people but do not love God, you are a liar. If you claim to love some people but do not love all, you are a liar. If you claim to love some of the time but do not love always, you are a liar. 1 Corinthians 13 lists many great causes one could adopt and noble actions one could perform without loving God or human beings:

13 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3; NASB).

Identifying with a great and good cause for which one is willing to give up everything is no sure sign that one loves, that one is a good and just person. In his profoundly insightful book, Søren Kierkegaard reminds us of something we should keep in mind always:

Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man,  that is, that God is the middle term…For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another to love God is to be loved (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pp. 112-113).

In our relationship with other human beings, with God’s creation, and with ourselves, God is the “middle term,” that is, we must never try to love anything other than God directly. Nothing can be loved in the right way unless it is loved within the act of loving God and because we love God. If you think you are loving people by championing their rights and fighting against their oppressors but are not helping them to love God, you are self-deceived. You do not love them at all. Indeed you may be making them seven times worse off. If you think you can love yourself by asserting your rights and your dignity directly apart from loving God, you are dressing pride in clothing of justice. The greatest cause is learning to love God. The greatest act of love you can do for others is to help them love God, and the most loving thing anyone will ever do for you is to help you love God.

So, you are looking for a great cause? Be sure that your desire to serve a great cause is not secretly a desire to become great by associating with a great cause. We might begin by learning to pray the prayer of tax collector instead of that of the Pharisee:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ (Luke 18:13).

Social Justice and the American Prophet

The issue of social justice remains the hottest topic I’ve ever written about on this blog. My essay, “On the Difference between Seeking Justice and Doing Justice,” written two years ago, still receives more hits per week than any other essay. So, I’m going to address the topic again from a new perspective.

American Christianity has a long tradition of producing social reformers, social ethicists, and public theologians. These individuals are often seen as carrying on the tradition of such Old Testament prophets as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah. They speak to the general population and their leaders, that is, to the whole nation, as if America had inherited the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. They demand justice for the poor, for minorities, for women, for gay people, for transgender people, and for every other oppressed group. And they often root their demands in the biblical vision of justice and community. And this prophetic persona is not limited to left-leaning personalities. Others, right-leaning prophets, take up the mantle of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha and call for repentance from immorality and idolatry. This phenomenon is not limited to high profile preachers, professors, and nonprofit CEOs. With the advent of social media, every Tom, Dick, and Susan can become a prophet to the nation. Of course no one listens to Facebook prophets; no one cares and no one changes.

As venerable and as American as this “prophetic” tradition is, it is based on a false premise. There are no American prophets, and there never have been. And the reason is simple. God has not made a covenant with America or any other nation or nation-state to be his people. The Old Testament prophets were sent by God to challenge God’s covenant people to repent of their unfaithfulness to the covenant. The prophetic ministry presupposes a divine covenant and its binding responsibilities. Apart from a covenant, a prophet is without authority; she or he is just another political advocate. The covenant nation was a failure. The only divine covenant in force today is the New Covenant Jesus sealed with his blood. The new covenant people is not composed of one ethnic group, or of the people living within the borders of one nation state, or even of all humankind. You cannot enter it through birth or the social contract. You enter by faith and baptism into Jesus Christ and in so doing you place yourself under the sole Lordship of Jesus. Prophets have authority only as they speak on the basis of the New Covenant to the New Covenant people, the church. The death and resurrection of Jesus marked the end of divine covenants with nations. There are no state churches or church states! And there are no national prophets!

Does Christianity have a message for the people of America or for the world? Yes. But it must be spoken by a different persona, the evangelist! The message to those outside of God’s covenant people is “Repent and believe the Gospel.” To speak prophetically to people outside the new covenant deceives them into thinking that as long as they believe in whatever social reform is being advocated, they don’t need to repent of idolatry and immorality and become Jesus’ disciples. They are deceived into thinking that political power can accomplish as much good as the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; that they don’t need to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2), that they don’t need to “live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6), that they don’t need the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38),  that they don’t need to worry that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4), and that they don’t need divine mercy and forgiveness.

If you find yourself wanting to be a prophet to America (or Canada or Germany or any other nation), if the state of things outrages you, be careful lest you substitute a political message for the gospel and a superficial call for social change for radical conversion to Jesus. Don’t mistake anger and personal offence for passion for justice. Don’t mistake insults, judgments, and self-righteousness for prophetic inspiration. Don’t take Amos or Elijah as your model. Their day has come and gone. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Live it and preach it. If you aim to live as a disciple of Jesus your life will have an inadvertent prophet effect. The light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.