Inscrutable Justice

There is a media ritual that I detest even more than most media rituals: the televised thrusting of microphones into the faces of bereaved crime victims to get their opinions on what should be done to the accused. The bereaved, true sons and daughters of our extraordinarily punitive culture (compare our rates of incarceration), almost always take the bait and express some blood-curdling call for vengeance.

I wish I could rush through the screen and say “No! Hold that thought! Don’t say it! You don’t need to prove you loved the victim! Don’t debase yourself!”

As one who prays regularly “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” few phrases so terrify me as “I will never forgive,” which is the gist of what those cameras, microphones, and prosecutor-solicited “victim impact statements” encourage.

Victim impact statements are, now that I mention it, another, er, pet peeve. The criminal court system works on the theory that the “State of Indiana” (or whatever) is prosecuting the Defendant because he breached the peace, security and good order of the State by his deed. It is not “Family of Victim” versus Defendant. Victim Impact Statements thus are a solecism on the grammar of the criminal law, and, once again, merely invite vindictive expressions that imperil the souls of victims and their families as they’re incited not to forgive.

Oh: do you have any doubt that crimes against victims with articulate white family member/victims end up seen as particularly heinous?

A mediation-type setting, where victims could tell the offender how his act affected them outside the hearing of judge or jury might actually serve restoration of the offender. Victim impact statements, in contrast, are oriented more toward exacting extra retribution and trying to assure that the offender never gets out, never gets restored.

These concerns flooded over me as I browsed my blog feeds while waiting for lunch to come today:

The [Church] fathers have a term for insatiable desires: passions. What human beings experience as a desire for justice is not a virtue – it is a passion, a disordered desire of the soul.
Virtues, the desires that are rightly ordered, have a proper end to their desire. They can be satisfied because they have a proper end. The experience of hunger, when rightly ordered, is perfectly natural and is able to know and experience a sense of completion. Enough is enough. When hunger is disordered it cannot rightly discern its end. The desire for food becomes confused. The result is gluttony – experienced by too much or too little food. I recall a friend, a recovering alcoholic, who said that the problem with alcohol was that “there was never enough.”
The Law in the Old Testament recognized the disordered character of human justice. It placed limits on our desire for justice. The Lex Talionis, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is not a prescription for what must be paid for an injury: it is a limit on the maximum that may be extracted. Our desire for justice is never satisfied with an eye for an eye. We would like two eyes, a hand, a foot, an electronic ankle bracelet and 6 million dollars in punitive damages (and even then we are not actually satisfied).

But Father Stephen isn’t out to reform the criminal justice system. He’s using an analogy to introduce some truths about God.

But first, let’s start with a near-slander of God from Jonathan “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God” Edwards:

…if the obligation to love, honour, and obey God be infinite, then sin which is the violation of this obligation, is a violation of infinite obligation, and so is an infinite evil. Once more, sin being an infinite evil, deserves an infinite punishment, an infinite punishment is no more than it deserves: therefore such punishment is just; which was the thing to be proved. (Jonathan Edwards, “The Eternity of Hell Torments” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (vol. 2, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974) 83.)

Even Father Stephen admits:

His reasoning appears flawless. Our obligation to God is infinite, so its violation is infinite. Infinite crime warrants and infinite punishment: ergo eternity in the torments of hell.

Theology that ends with “Q.E.D.” There was a time when I’d have eaten that up.

Time out: Might such Calvinism, which sees God as the possessor of an infinite victim impact statement, have something to do with how we view, and pursue, criminal offenders?

Time back in: But what if God is not a thin-skinned medieval lord (the medieval period being when this notion gained currency)? What if He’s not “infinitely offended”?

Infinite is simply an inappropriate adjective to use in our relationship with God. It brings inappropriate and incommensurate results in its train. It is more accurate to say of our relationship to God, and those things that belong to it, that they are “immeasurable.” What is required is not without limit (for the infinite cannot be required of the finite), but it is beyond our finite ability to measure.
This is a far more accurate way to approach the justice of God. His justice is not properly described as infinite (what would that mean?). His justice is inscrutable – we simply cannot know it, fathom it, or understand it. It is a useless concept when it comes to understanding our obligations to God. God is just – because He is not unjust. But what it means to say that “God is just,” is beyond our ken.
The result of the distortions caused by faulty theologizing about God’s justice, is a God who is not worthy of worship. There are those who not only glibly consign sinners to hell, but also postulate that the righteous will rejoice in the torment of sinners because of their delight in the goodness of God’s justice. Those with normal human sensibilities are repulsed by such notions. Those who embrace such heresy have their soul’s perverted desire for infinite justice confirmed. Such theology does not heal the soul – it corrupts it further and feeds its passions.

Yes, I think we’re back to things like what God do atheists “not believe in”? A “God” who consigns people to hell because of his anger problem? I don’t believe in that one, either. I don’t think people believed in that one for the first millennium or so of the Christian era.

How can anyone say “God is love” if that’s what he has in mind? How can anyone “worship” him? Is it worship or toadying?

Much more quoting and I’ll transgress (not infinitely) against the dignity of Fr. Stephen. If you have any concern with (a) justice and forgiveness among humans or (b) the nature of God’s justice, I commend the whole article to you.

Evangelicals & Contraception

[I’ve encountered a few things worth digging into a bit, and have been left with too little time for collections. I’ve not foresworn them, though.]

The Spring 2012 Human Life Review opens with 21st-Century Evangelicals Revisit Contraception and Abortion.

You need to realize that the Review is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. That’s just a fact. The Founder was Catholic, his Catholic family carries on the work, most contributors are Catholic (the regulars on the masthead are 4 Catholics, 1 Orthodox, 1 Episcopalian, and 1 Jewish atheist) – and frankly, almost all of the really rigorous prolife thought has been Catholic during my lifetime at least. Thank God for them.

Add that Evangelicalism is decentralized in the extreme, and changes, chameleon-like, to remain “relevant” and I was skeptical that the piece could say much. But it’s one of the great marketing coups of our time that Evangelicals think they’re united, and have largely succeeded in getting people to identify their peculiar sensibility as “Christianity” rather than as a subset or sect. And since there are a lot of folks with that sensibility, if you want a political movement, it will generally be good to enlist them.

I was right about the article not measuring up:

While the evidence is largely anecdotal, there appears to have been an increase over the past two decades in the number of Evangelicals who are reconsidering their support of contraception as they seek to develop a more consistent pro-life witness.

“Anecdotal” is a near necessity, I suppose, as it would be hard to do a study of Evangelicals that wasn’t methodologically dubious.

But the article did pull up some interesting history, parts of which have delighted the “progressives” who aren’t religiously illiterate (think Slacktivist, for instance). I’m going to summarize, with my own personal observations italicized):

  • The Reformers joined Rome (as far back as Augustine, pre-schism but proto-western in his thought) in their condemnation of Onanism – which is about the best one can do at gauging what their view of contraception would have been.
  • Evangelicals (at least as the author views them – consider that caveat as applying to each subsequent occurrence of the term and its cognates) were among the earliest and fiercest opponents of birth control in the late 19th Century. This came as news to me.
  • Anthony Comstock was Evangelical, not Catholic. This, too, came as news to me.
  • Opposition to birth control was generally seen as a reformist and heroic cause.
  • After Comstock’s death, his nemesis Margaret Sanger became ascendant, and the Episcopalians broke millennia of Christian tradition in 1930 by a timid endorsement of contraception for those who can’t remain abstinent, so long as they adhere to Christian principles – principles that the endorsement itself was ambiguating. Soon, “most Protestant groups came to accept the use of modern contraceptives as a matter of Biblically allowable freedom of conscience” (Wikipedia).
  • After World War II, worries about overpopulation became pandemic.
  • By 1950, arch-fundamentalist Dr. Bob Jones Sr., of Bob Jones University, was demanding that newlywed aspiring dorm parents promise to practice birth control if they got the position.
  • By 1973, many Evangelicals viewed Roe v. Wade as a blow for religious liberty. The Southern Baptist Convention was particularly equivocal. (I was then unequivocally Evangelical, and was vaguely uneasy about pro-abortion clergy – none of them Evangelical, in my experience – playing Harriet Tubman to “enslaved” pregnant women. But I was not activated until 1980.)
  • Beginning in late 1979 or so, Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop enlisted Evangelicals in the anti-abortion cause with their film and book, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? I was one of those enlisted.
  • Evangelicals, however, were still very friendly to contraception.
  • By hanging out with Catholic pro-lifers, some Evangelicals anecdotally are reconsidering contraception, and one of the niche Evangelical markets is “the Quiverfull movement.” But the leaders he cites in support (all three listed here, with a fourth) are generally fringe figures in Evangelicalism – serious Calvinists, in my experience, aren’t entirely certain whether they remain “Evangelical.” 

I have always, since my earliest days of enlistment in the pro-life cause, thought the Bible case against abortion, if all we had was Bible, was one that Evangelicals would never buy if an argument of equal strength told them to do something they found uncongenial. But then, with Bible only, I doubt that Evangelicals would believe in the Holy Trinity or have a remotely correct Christology. They owe a very large unacknowledged debt to the Church that preceded them, and that they typically think is quite corrupt and paganized. Sigh.

But the Church has always opposed abortion, and I’ve come to appreciate the strength of theological arguments (in addition to things I learned in biology class) that are not narrowly Biblical.

In theory, at least, Evangelicals don’t like theological arguments of that sort, so I don’t know how much staying power their renewed opposition to contraception and abortion will show.

* * * * *

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

The Benedict Option

Rod Dreher got the closing chapter in The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, with Wendell Berry: A Latter-Day St. Benedict.

Excerpts and a few comments:

There is among Republicans little if any appreciation of how the party’s enthusiasm for laissez-faire capitalism—and the idea that economic growth is the raison d’être of our common existence—undermines the communal and social bonds necessary to support the traditional family-centered morality Republicans claim to esteem.

Conservatives, [Berry] writes, exalt the family as a sort of “public icon” but will not stand against economic practices that undermine the family’s structure and purpose. Liberals exalt sexual emancipation and the abrogation of established traditions governing sexual relations but refuse to recognize how their libertine ethic undermines the community they claim to support. Neither side can offer a credible solution to the current crisis because neither side has a credible answer to the question once posed by Berry: “What are people for?”

This is true and is a terrible Republican “conservative” blind spot. If you’re incredulous at the suggestion that consumer capitalism undermines families, you need take the blinders off and get out more. But the Democrat blind spot is never far from my mind, either, and makes me a bit cynical about Gubernatorial candidate John Gregg’s otherwise fetching “we take care of our own” TV ads.

We are a people given over to autonomous individualism. Mainstream liberals are more sympathetic to sexual autonomy; mainstream conservatives to economic autonomy. The ferocious contempt partisans of both sides have for each other obscures their fundamental philosophical agreement.  As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has said, all modern political arguments come down to disputes “between conservative liberals, liberal liberals and radical liberals.” He meant that in our culture, nearly all political factions accept as given that the choosing individual is the base unit of our political order, and all claims must be made in terms of expanding freedom to choose.

C.S. Lewis’ essay “On the Reading of Old Books” observed:

Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” — lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.

Dreher, channeling MacIntyre, is suggesting that one of our untroubled agreements is that “the choosing individual is the base unit of our political order, and all claims must be made in terms of expanding freedom to choose.” Having viewed the world mostly from the Right, that’s starkly obvious in Left slogans like “pro-choice.” Perhaps even more telling is Justice Anthony Kennedy’s view in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in the early 90s:

These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the 14th Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life ….

(Emphasis added) That’s telling because Justices know that the legitimacy of their opinions come entirely from the persuasive plausibility, as the court has no troops or police to enforce its will. Radically autonomous individual choice either has real cachet or Justice Kennedy is tone deaf. I wouldn’t bet on the latter.

There are more communitarian ways of viewing reality, and as I’m now ensconced in a religious tradition one of whose modern voice wrote “Being as Communion,” I’m trying to shift into such ways of thinking.

[W]hile it is satisfying to bewail the failures of the Republicans and the Democrats, let’s not deceive ourselves. Our problems come not so much because American political parties have lost their way but rather because we, the American people, have lost our way. There are no votes in telling people this, so politicians don’t. Still, the wise among us will heed Wendell Berry’s verdict: “Our country is not being destroyed by bad politics; it is being destroyed by a bad way of life.”

This principle—that our natural state imposes duties and limits upon us and our relations to others—is increasingly foreign to the American way of life, which rejects limits, natural or prescribed. As the military historian Andrew Bacevich has argued, with reference to Jimmy Carter’s disastrous attempt to convince Americans to live within our means (the so-called malaise speech), we have become a people who will tolerate war in the Middle East as the price for maintaining the right to live without limits. It is, or has become, the American way.

Alasdair MacIntyre counseled rejecting both political parties in 2004 “not primarily because they give us the wrong answers, but because they answer the wrong questions.”

I am convinced that conservatives have placed far too much stock in political action and far too little in the work of culture. “Society’s long-term direction is not set mainly by politicians,” the political theorist Claes Ryn recently wrote. “It is set by those who capture a people’s mind and imagination.”

You don’t need much to capture minds and imaginations. A TV network will do. Currently, Glee and Modern Family, having supplanted Will & Grace, are doing a nice job of convincing us that niceness is job #1, and that it’s not nice to say “no” to anyone’s sexual preference. That’s a major reason why the same-sex marriage cause is triumphant already, although the “conservative” undermining of the family didn’t help. (Bless their hearts. They just can’t help themselves.)

The ideal polity will favor small-scale economics—small farmers, small manufacturers, small merchants—because that is the kind of society in which people are most likely to develop in wisdom, virtue, and happiness.

We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless quite different—St.Benedict.

Much more might be a spoiler. I commend the whole book and the works of Berry generally.