World Youth Day being held in Madrid August 16-21 will be an important opportunity for Pope Benedict XVI to speak regarding Europe’s Christian roots. George Weigel summarized some remarks from the Holy Father to religious and cultural leaders in Zagreb, Croatia. The pope spoke on many important topics including freedom, free society, human rights, and democracy. It is important to note that though obvious to many Americans, these points are still “wildly counter-cultural” in Europe. Like Weigel, I hope someone takes notice to help bring needed religious, political, business and cultural change to Europe.
In Allan Bloom’s translation of The Republic of Plato, Socrates sets out to define the meaning of justice, and if the just life can be seen as being more profitable than the unjust life. Thrasymachus, an acquaintance of Socrates, in book I of the Republic of Plato, offers his reckless opinion on justice saying, “Justice is the advantage of the stronger” (338c), and that “injustice, when it comes into being on a sufficient scale, is mightier, freer, and more masterly than justice” (444c). Thrasymachus’ definition of justice should be an alarming one because it can be used to explain the economic crisis and situation today: The unjust man benefits in good and bad times, by the laws and contracts made by those in power, while the just man is punished in both good and bad times.
It is interesting to see that this example of injustice, that was discussed more than two thousand years ago, is still in effect today when considering the bailout of banks, government spending, and the national debt in the United States. Time and time again the government is sending us the same message Thrasymachus gave us: it pays to be unjust in today’s unjust society. Banks and government spending are being rewarded for reckless exhaustion of money through raising taxes across America to cover-up their own debt. The government is benefiting in both good and bad times by rewarding themselves for making their own mistakes, while citizens are being punished in good and bad times because of the advantage of those in power.
So, in a society that rewards injustice, why is the just life one that should be considered more profitable and desired? Why should will still push to create a more free and virtuous society? If we look at the interpretive essay of Allan Bloom we may begin to understand why the just life is worthwhile. According to Allan Bloom:
“Justice is human virtue, each gains his fulfillment in the prosperity of the whole”… and that “injustice is not a virtue, but a vice because it is contrary to wisdom, which is a virtue.”
It isn’t hard to believe that the practice of virtue in society can lead us to a more free and virtuous society; and, that the practice of virtue in economics and politics will permit justice in these areas. Explained again in his interpretive essay of The Republic, Allan Bloom states:
“Justice is to be desired (rewarded) because it is the health and perfection of the soul. It therefore follows that justice, as the virtue of the soul, is desirable in itself. Everyone wishes to have a healthy soul.”
If justice, not injustice, was rewarded in our society, with the practice of virtue, then economies, politics, and lives in general would reflect that of a healthy soul; and would, in turn, help society flourish.
We can find this same message in what is said through the prophet Isaiah, “Thus says the Lord: Observe what is right, do what is just; for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1). By doing what is right and practicing what is just, we are living-out virtue; but more importantly, we are seeking first the kingdom of God.
Much of the discussions I’ve been involved in over recent months that have focused on the federal budget have involved some basic assumptions about what the Christian view of government is. Sometimes these assumptions have been explicitly conflicting. Other times the assumptions have been shown as the result of exegetical commitments about what Scripture says.
This is, for instance, one of the points that came up right at the conclusion of the panel discussion about intergenerational justice at AEI a few weeks ago. The question was essentially whether and how we can move from the example given in the Old Testament nation of Israel to conclusions about the role of governments today.
There’s much to be said on this point, and it is an important hermeneutical question. What I will point out here, however, is that there are significant and noteworthy traditions of how to do precisely this.
In this regard, I’ll point to this year’s 450th anniversary of a major confessional document for the Reformed tradition, the Belgic Confession. Article 36 of the confession, which has had its own share of interesting interpretive history, lays out the basic role of the civil government:
We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.
For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.
The clear emphasis on the task of the civil government here isn’t on some undifferentiated concept of “justice” or comprehensive shalom but rather a kind of procedural justice focused on “good order” and retributive justice, for which reason God “has placed the sword in the hands of the government.”
The Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, teach that the ruler is to “do justice.” But what that means precisely is not self-evident. Your understanding depends in part on whether and to what extent you think the “political” sphere has limits, or whether you distinguish between the “justice” that is appropriate to different spheres. It is not obvious that this biblical injunction to “do justice” means that the federal government is required to provide direct material assistance to the poor on an ongoing and permanent basis.
The Belgic Confession outlines the limits of the civil magistrates’ power and authority: “They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.” As the Reformed tradition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the Belgic Confession this year, this is a perspective that warrants greater attention and fidelity.
Today is Election Day in the United States, and here’s a fitting prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, who hast created us in thine own image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
As a follow-up to last week’s popular discussion (thanks to Glenn Reynolds) on prison rape, Justice Fellowship has just released a statement, “Left-Right Coalition Demands Stop to Prison Rape.”
The news alert begins, “A broad coalition from the political left and right has called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to cease any further delay in eliminating prison rape. Calling the high incidence of prison rape ‘a moral outrage,’ Prison Fellowship and supporters from both liberal and conservative organizations unveiled a letter to Mr. Holder demanding an end to sexual abuse in prisons across the country.”
Our commenter is right to point to the cultural complexity of how humor functions in our society. Shannon Love contends, “I don’t think the vast majority of people who joke or threaten about prison rape are seriously indifferent to it when it comes to making real decisions about the penal system. Instead, I think they are simply pointing out one of the ugly realities of any penal system.”
When faced with a stark “yes” or “no” choice on the question of the prevalence of prison rape, I agree that most people are not “seriously indifferent.” But as for ranking it as an issue of actionable importance, I highly doubt that the issue is on the agenda of many Americans, even the most politically active.
The work of Justice Fellowship and their allies is a notable exception in this regard. Most people probably just see the kind of “Scared Straight” parody on Saturday Night Live, chuckle a bit, and move on.
Two of the things I’ve paid some attention to, one more recently and the other as an ongoing area of interest, came together in an Instapundit update yesterday.
Glenn Reynolds linked to a video of a NYC cop who “threatens a man taking cell phone video with arrest.” This picks up the attention given here and here to the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’
But what really struck me about this story was the threat attributed to the (apparent) cop, who said, “Guys in jail are going to rape you.”
This is beyond the pale in myriad ways. Reynolds points out in an update that “when you have a badge and a gun you should behave better than the average schmuck, rather than having a license to be a jerk.” Public persons, like law enforcement officials, have a higher standard of conduct than private individuals.
But this story also gets at the necessity of prison reform, and the importance of Christian engagement of the criminal justice system.
The term dehumanization gets used often to describe what happens to a victim, particularly of a violent crime. But it’s all often what happens in the realities of the American system of criminal justice.
Simply because people commit crimes, heinous, violent, or otherwise, it does not mean that they cease to be human persons.
No matter what someone has done there are simply things that are not to be done to them, and certainly not within the context of a legally-sanctioned system of justice. This moral reality is what stands behind a good deal of the principled Christian opposition to torture, for instance. And it’s also what lies behind the proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” There are just some things that you don’t do to human beings in any situation or context, merely by virtue of their status as human beings.
The prevalence of prison rape in particular is something that criminals should not be subjected to. Evangelicals have been particularly active on this issue, including groups like the NAE and Justice Fellowship.
Holding criminals accountable is part of what it means to treat them as human beings, as moral agents. But the dignity of human persons, in their victimhood as well as their victimization, also means that there are limits to forms of punishment or to acceptable contexts for incarceration. It also means that imprisonment is not the final word, even in cases of life sentences. Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.
This has important implications for what prison and imprisonment look like. For instance, in the latest issue of Corrections Today, one of the “top nine” reasons to increase correctional education programs is that “From a humanistic viewpoint, education is the right thing to do.” The brief article (PDF) cites a UN statement:
Education should be aimed at the full development of the whole person requiring prisoner access to formal and informal education, literacy programs, basic education, vocational training, creative, religious and cultural activities, physical
education and sport, social education, higher education and library facilities.
(Thanks to Dr. John Teevan, director of Grace College’s Prison Extension Program for pointing out that article).
My own view is that the broad realm of criminal justice, including various accounts of restorative justice and the relationship of Christians, both organically and institutionally, to the government system of punishment is especially ripe for fruitful engagement. And the issue of prison rape is a concrete instance of where Christian activism is of utmost importance.
The hugely influential reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) writes in his commentary on Romans 13:
Meanwhile, the Gospel teaches the godly properly about spiritual and eternal life in order that eternal life may be begun in their hearts. In public it wants our bodies to be engaged in this civil society and to make sure of the common bonds of this society with decisions about properties, contracts, laws, judgments, magistrates, and other things. These external matters do not hinder the knowledge of God from being present in hearts or fear, faith, calling on God, and other virtues. In fact, God put forth these external matters as opportunities in which faith, calling on God, fear of God, patience, and love might be exercised.
There is a certain wisdom worthy for a Christian to know. God cast the church into the midst of these occupations because he wants to become known among men in a common society. He wanted all offices of society to be exercises in confession, and at the same time exercises of our faith and love.
Wise words on justice and the social and political implications of the Gospel from the reformer whose impact is still felt today, 450 years after his death.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that the talk of health care as a ‘right’ is so vague as to border on willful and culpable obfuscation. I certainly advocate a rich and complex description of ‘rights’ talk, such that simply calling something a ‘right’ doesn’t end the ethical or political discussion. Some ‘rights’ are more fundamental and basic than others, and various ‘rights’ require things of various actors.
But when it is asserted that access to health care is a ‘right,’ what precisely is the claim? Is it analogous to the claim that access to food and water, too, are rights? Very often these rights are equated in contemporary discussions: food and water, shelter, and health care.
One the one hand, however, it’s very odd to assert that health care, at least as practiced in its modern form (with X-ray machines and flu shots) is a right, at least in the sense that it is something that the human person qua person has a claim upon. If that’s the case, then all those millions of people who lived before the advent of the CAT scan were all the while having their rights ‘denied’ them (whether by God, fate, cosmic chance, or oppressive regimes bent upon keeping us from advancing medical technologies). It would also follow that all of those living today without access to these advanced technologies, simply by basis of their geographical and cultural location, are having their rights similarly denied. (This raises the troubling implication, not to be explored in any detail here, that the debate about health care in the industrial and post-industrial West amounts to a series of tantrums by the coddled and privileged about the requisite level of health care, which by any standard already dwarfs what is available to the global poor, who do not have access to what has the best claim upon ‘rights’ talk, even the most basic health care services.)
This raises the further question, if it be granted that health care is in some sense a right (which I am not opposed to granting), “What precisely does that right entail?” Clearly we can’t mean, in the context of the history of humankind, that this is a right to arthroscopic surgery or titanium hip replacement. That would be a bit like saying my right to food means that I have a claim to eating filet mignon. Just because someone else can afford to eat filet mignon doesn’t mean that my right to not starve gives me a similar claim upon filet mignon.
Similarly, just because some people can afford the greatest medical care available in the history of humankind (whether by the providence of God, fate, or cosmic chance), it doesn’t follow that I have a right to health care in that particular form. My basic claim to health care merely on the basis of my humanity is something more like the right to ramen noodles than it is to filet mignon.
This only describes what I am due by rights. It’s the least that’s required by the standards of justice.
And what might love require? “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.”
Commenting on how Pope Benedict XVI addressed the economic crisis and development challenges in “Caritas in Veritate” is Lord Brian Griffiths of Fforestfach, a member of the British House of Lords and Vice-Chairman of Goldman Sachs International. He has served in an advisory capacity to the Acton Institute and delivered published papers on globalization and Third World development at the Institute’s international conferences.
Click here for the original article appearing in The Times.
July 13, 2009
Pope Benedict is the man on the money
The best analysis yet of the global economic crisis tells how people, not just rules, must change.
By Brian Griffiths
When Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope, his strengths and weaknesses seemed clear. Here was an eminent theologian, philosopher and guardian of Christian truth, but a man unlikely to make the Church’s message relevant to the world today. How simplistic this now looks in the light of his third encyclical, in which Pope Benedict XVI confronts head-on the financial crisis that has rocked the world.
The language may be dense, but the message is sufficiently rewarding. The encyclical analyses modern capitalism from an ethical and spiritual perspective as well as a technical one. As a result it makes the Government’s White Paper on financial reforms published two days later look embarrassingly one-dimensional and colourless.
It is highly critical of today’s global economy but always positive. Its major concern is how to promote human development in the context of justice and the common good. Despite heavy competition from some of the world’s finest minds, it is without doubt the most articulate, comprehensive and thoughtful response to the financial crisis that has yet appeared. It should strike a chord with all who wish to see modern capitalism serving broader human ends.
The Pope makes it clear that the encyclical takes its inspiration from Populorum Progressio, the encyclical published by Paul VI in 1967, at the height of anti-capitalism in Europe. It attacked liberal capitalism, was ambivalent about economic growth, recommended expropriation of landed estates if poorly used and enthused about economic planning. (more…)