Rights, Responsibility, Freedom, and Self-Control

In the previous two essays about political Liberty and Rights, I emphasized that one of the assumptions about rights built into the Enlightenment was that they were necessarily connected to responsibility. One of the early critiques of the Enlightenment that has become increasingly obvious over the decades is that many of those Enlightenment assumptions were not a result of Enlightenment ideas, but were rather leftovers from the Christian worldview out of which the Enlightenment grew. Responsibility is one of those leftover ideas. The logical conclusion of Enlightenment political theory is Libertarianism, a political philosophy in which there is very little room, if any, for responsibility for others.

While the Liberty and Rights pairing is not a specifically Christian pairing (Liberty, in Christian theology has a different set of implications, especially as Paul uses it in contrast to the Mosaic Law) there is a close analog in Christian theology: The pairing of Freedom and Self-control.

Fr Thomas Hopko, in vol 4 of a slender set of theology books designed for lay readers and church Bible Studies called The Orthodox Faith, contrasts freedom and self-control. “According to the saints, self-control is one of the main elements of the divine image in man, coextensive with the gift of freedom which is often explained as the essential and basic element of man’s likeness to his Creator.”

Just as rights and responsibility are two sides of the same reality, so self-control and freedom are two sides of the same reality. True freedom is achieved in the ability not to exercise it. Similarly, in political philosophy, true rights can only be exercised to the degree that we recognize our responsibility to others, to order, and to the polis in general.

 

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Liberty and Freedom

In Enlightenment political theory (this is the political theory that is foundational to the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution) the two primary natural “endowments” are life and liberty (and yes, the Declaration adds Happiness, but that’s another story). Given the history of American jurisprudence, the most appropriate definition of liberty is “the right to speak and act without constraint.” Freedom is the application of this natural liberty in various facets of civic life.

It has been generations since we’ve experience true chaos in America, so now one might think that the purpose of government is to do stuff for us. But in the context of the above natural endowments, the purpose of government is to maintain order and keep chaos at bay. The endowment of liberty can only be expressed through freedom in an orderly society relatively free of threats. It’s this orderly society that government seeks to maintain. In the decade of the 1770s the threat to freedom was not the misdeeds of the citizenry but rather the influence of England. It is not surprising then that the Founding Fathers spoke little of the internal conditions that made freedom possible and spoke a lot about external threats to freedom. But according to their practice it seems they believed freedom was only possible if the citizens were educated, civically responsible and involved.

Because the responsibilities of the citizenry was not a primary topic, I want to get at that subject through a far more mundane avenue: children. On various occasions I have heard parents with more than one child talk about the difference between kids. The one is responsible and the parents can let the responsible child borrow the car and stay out until midnight without many worries. The other is far less responsible and as a result far more restrictions about the use of the car or going to a friend’s house for the evening are required. The parents’ attitudes about freedom remain consistent, but differing levels of responsibility lead to differing levels of freedom. Lack of freedom is not the parents’ fault, it’s the irresponsible child’s fault.

Freedom may also need to be curtailed because of the company we keep. As a grade schooler my son was very responsible and we allowed him a great deal of freedom to roam and come and go as he pleased. Then we moved and our son made a new friend who turned out to be a great kid, but who initially appeared to be a wild child. Until we understood the friendship better, our son’s freedom was severely curtailed, not because of his character or actions, but because of the friends he had.

Civic life is similar. Liberty is the naturally endowed right and freedom is granted to the extent that the populace embodies liberty or, to say it another way, is responsible enough to handle freedom without creating chaos. Furthermore, this is not only a matter of individual character. Freedom is the fruit of all (or the majority) of the citizenry having the character and being responsible in a manner that allows a measure of freedom to be granted without it leading to chaos. Just because I am capable of handling freedom responsibly, it does not necessarily follow that the society in which I live can do this. To a large extent my freedom is determined by “the company I keep.”

As I said above, in the United States we have had a remarkable measure of freedom with few ill effects for so many generations that we forget freedom is not a right. We have been relatively free throughout our history, not only because of the Constitution, but primarily because the country was not in chaos…well, except for the wild west. Although the the so-called Indian Wars are a terrible blot on our history, they are instructive at this point. Both the west-bound settlers and the federal government believed that the west was too chaotic to be governed. For the sake of argument we will accept the government’s conclusion that the problem was not the national policies about settlement of the west and was instead the Native Americans themselves. Because of this, the government practiced a policy of imprisonment, forced relocation, and killing. The Native Americans lost their freedom because they and their situation was deemed too chaotic to be governable. Even though they were endowed with natural liberty, the government was not able to grant them the consequent freedom because of their actions. (And yes, there are more facets to this tragedy, including the question of whether they were human, but for this essay I am limiting myself specifically to the question of naturally endowed liberty.) Even though this chapter in history was horrendous from my contemporary perspective, it was acceptable to the citizenry because they understood at a deep level the proper relationship between liberty, which is naturally endowed, and freedom, which is granted by the government to the degree that chaos does not ensue.

The above example reminds us that as compelling as the ideas expressed in the founding documents are, the execution of these ideas is always messy and far from perfect. Legal slavery, North America’s relation to the native population (in both the U.S. and Canada), the U.S. policy toward Japanese, and to a lesser extent, German citizens during WWII are all historic examples where the proper understanding of liberty and freedom and the identification of the core problem were handled badly. There are many contemporary examples, but because of differing beliefs and sensibilities it’s far harder to nail down either the truth or the proper direction forward without the benefit of historical clarity. (This would include ideas as disparate as immigrant rights, LGBT issues, and internet freedom.) Because I am a political conservative and because on the issue of gun rights I fundamentally differ from many, if not most, other conservatives, I will explore gun rights in the context of liberty and freedom further in the next essay.

Hayek on Social Justice

When I read this I had an aha moment. It summarizes very well one of my discomforts with social justice.

Social Justice makes sense as a political ideal within a closed community of like-minded people but cannot coherently be pursued across an abstract order of people who interact with and relate to one another not because they share particular deep ethical commitments but in spite of the fact that they do not

Quote is a summary of Friedrich Hayek’s view of social justice by LSE professor Chandran Kukathas, in the book, Law, Liberty and State: Oakeshott, Hayek and Schmitt on the Rule of Law (David Dyzenhaus and Thomas Poole, eds., Cambridge, 2015), p. 289. It was Kenneth McIntyre’s review in the Anamnesis Journal that pointed me in the direction of this fine volume.

Prayer as Social Justice

A couple of years ago I thought I needed a change because my life had become too insular. One of the things I thought I needed to do was re-engage my social justice sensibilities that had dulled and been slowly moved to the back of the shelf since leaving the Presbyterian Church some twenty years ago. So I have spent the last many months praying and studying with mainline Christians, many of whom can be characterized as social justice warriors.

Of course this re-engagement came just before interesting days. The U.S. has not had two major party candidates running at the same time who were as polarizing as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in my lifetime. Before the election the nation was sure that Hillary would be elected and there was significant concern about how the Trump supporters would react. “We’re one nation,” my liberal friends would intone, “and we have a responsibility to unite after the election.” I have become a bystander in American politics and I don’t think I’ve been emotionally engaged with an election since Ronald Reagan. What follows may or may not align with reality, it is rather how the election affected me emotionally. It’s hard for me to imagine that the Republicans could have been sorer losers or more divisive than the Democrats were in the days following the election. I was appalled and embarrassed and particularly uncomfortable to have divine worship layered over the hatred and vitriol that I was sensing. Even to this day I run into the occasional liberal who says, “He’s not my president.” And I want to shake them and say, “Actually, he is your president, unless you’ve given up your citizenship.”

Eventually, the liberal response to the situation was to form study groups, advocacy groups, organize protests, etc. I was a part of a study group and attended one advocacy group meeting. I found the vitriol toward the conservatives to be just vile enough to make me very uncomfortable. My place of work, in contrast, is a hotbed of conservative radicalism. (Two coworkers claimed they went out and purchased bump stocks the week after the Las Vegas massacre because, “That’s the sort of protection we need, given how pissed off these crazy liberals are.” Given the emotions, I have tended to isolate myself from both sides. Those who claim to hold the middle ground, seem to me to be avoiding the hard issues, preferring to stick their head in the sand, hoping it all just goes away. That is not an option either.

It is in this context of Donald and Hillary, of alt-right and antifa, of pissed off prayers of the people, and a little bit of worry that my bump stock toting cubicle mate doesn’t get too angry this winter that I have been thinking hard about social justice and prayer. My experience with social justice efforts, both back in the 80s and 90s when I was a pastor and now as a layperson, is that while they do some good in relation to the poor and oppressed, they end up being far more divisive than constructive.

Prayer of the heart, on the other hand, is a first, halting step in a completely different direction. As I descend down from head to heart I begin to make the hatred toward President Trump my own and begin to recognize that it’s fear hiding behind a mask of hatred. As I descend down from head to heart I begin to make the bellicose threats of violence that I hear at work my own and I begin to recognize that all the bellowing grows out of the way the “liberal culture” has belittled me and dismissed my concerns for years.

As my prayer moves downward from head to heart, the most difficult step is to do like Christ did so that I may become as Christ is. In order to do this, I must “become sin” just as Christ did so that I may confess that sin, repent, and thus be right with God. So a fundamental part of my prayer is to be clothed with and fully embrace the reality of those with whom I am alienated. This is very heart of the centroversion I talked about in this essay

And once this union of my neighbor and myself begins to take hold, and once I can descend into hell with Christ and fully hear and accept his proclamation of victory over my sin (the sin and hatreds I have become), I can then … and only then … be prepared to go back and do what I need to do. I can serve the poor, I can become an advocate for the oppressed, I can seek justice alongside the immigrants who live in my community who are afraid of the cops, I can encourage the people who are afraid of the immigrants and what sort of future they portend. But I do these things from a completely different direction.

This new context also helps me understand what Erich Neumann was getting on about toward the end of The Origins and History of Consciousness. Social justice by itself is my effort to create the world after my image. Of course I will claim I’m doing it after God’s image and have a dozen Bible verses to prove my point. But because of the breakdown of the collective unconscious, or to put it another way, because I have largely lost my sense of personhood and think of myself and do things as an individual, my efforts at social justice don’t serve society as much as they serve my values. The prayer of the heart is the process by which I can begin to integrate me, as individual, with others including my enemies, even as I integrate myself with God’s energies.

One might argue that this is not really any different than what I used to do as a Presbyterian seeking social justice. I disagree. My experience with social justice efforts then and now is that they is focused on helping them, fixing them, and fixing the system. But what I need to do is help me, fix me, and recognize that I am the system. Over time (and if Neumann is correct, we’re talking decades, not months), as I reintegrate with my neighbor, whether enemy or friend, that reintegration will begin to have reciprocal effects. At that point all of us will begin to move toward the collective “me.”

And with this we have come full circle but ended up at a rather different place. Social justice should still be central in my life, but in a rather different way. I can ignore mishpat because that’s God’s problem and not mine. I can focus on mercy or alms (that is tzedakah) without getting worked up about the broken system which leads to the injustices that cause me the need to give alms. I don’t even need to worry whether the person receiving charity is “worthy of my charity” or whether I am just squandering my money. (And at this point I will stop to let us ponder that sentiment which has been thrown at me on more than one occasion when I give cash to a smelly person. As if I even dare think in terms of them being “worthy of my charity!”) Rather than get caught up in that vicious circle which will inevitably lead to judgment, anger, and possibly retribution, I will use these opportunities to expand my prayer of the heart, thus creating a virtuous circle in which a new community, and eventually, a new collective conscious will begin to arise.

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.

 

My Neighbor and Myself

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

These words from 1 John 2:1-2 are worth exploring as an introduction to the corporate character of the prayer of the heart. Two things are happening in the text: (1) Jesus Christ is our atoning sacrifice, a concept rooted in the Levitical sacrificial system. Most simply it means that Christ took our place. This makes the other thing possible. (2) Jesus Christ is our Advocate with the Father. He is especially suited to this task because by becoming human (John 1:1) he is one of us, and furthermore by his willingness to be “made sin” for us (2 Cor. 5:21 – another way of describing him as the atoning sacrifice) he understands us from within the context of our predicament.

As our prayer descends from head to heart, a similar process can occur. Authentic prayer not only unites us with God, it unites us with human nature and created nature, and through that, actually and truly (and not just metaphorically) connects us with other people. As this descent of mind to heart occurs we can also willingly become our neighbor (whether enemy or friend) and from that position of being united spirit and heart with our neighbor, confess our sins (not “their,” but “our” sins: me and neighbor united), pray for strength and wisdom, and, to use a familiar word, advocate for us (me and neighbor united).

I am not making this suggestion lightly. There are deep and hostile divides that alienate my neighbor and myself. To embark on such a descent of mind to heart will sometimes involve becoming that which I despise. Maybe my neighbor is a racist or abuses his family. Maybe my neighbor owns a business that does very bad things to the environment and takes advantage of the farm community in which I live. Maybe it’s as mundane as my neighbor being a Libertarian while I believe there should be more societal order. Whatever it is, there are a lot of reasons that I don’t identify with my neighbor and most definitely don’t want to become my neighbor.

One of Fr. Sophrony’s most famous sayings is, “Stand on the edge of the abyss of despair and when you feel that it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea.” This is our task in prayer. We embrace the other and hold them tight until we understand that they are us. We are all human, after all. We share the same nature and I really am them. As that union begins to occur their failures, hatreds, and sins (from my perspective) become my failures, hatreds, and sins. But I can only stand at the edge of this despair for so long. When I can no longer do it, I step back and have a cuppa tea (although, since I’m not a Brit, it’s more likely to be a Starbucks Americano double shot, rather than a cuppa).

Slowly, over a long period of time, as I stand at the edge of this hell which is my enemy’s life, I begin the process of being able to embrace that hell, the sins, misdeeds, and evil embodied in the other side, and recognize that this is not merely them, this is also me. As that begins to happen I can begin to understand my enemy and why this neighbor does what he or she does. Having “become sin” on their behalf, I can begin to confess those sins as my sins and my evil. I can begin to repent. And with the strength of repentance, I no longer need to stand on the edge of the abyss, or merely at the gates of hell, I can enter into hell along with Jesus Christ and hear his words of victory. And with assurance of those words of victory, I can return to the world forgiven, not needing to escape to the cuppa tea, but ready to engage with the world in joy and assurance.

But what does this accomplish, this descent from head to heart, which then becomes a descent to hell so that I can be where Jesus Christ is, announcing both forgiveness and victory? What does this have to do with social justice? Well nothing, really, and yet it has everything to do with social justice.

Next essay: Prayer as Social Justice

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The Schism of the Systems: Culture in Crisis

In the final section of The Origins and History of Consciousness, Erich Neumann offers an explanation of one of the great concerns facing modern society: the breakdown of civil discourse and the apparent accompanying breakdown of culture itself. The original German version of the book was written in 1949, so the context of his ideas is Germany between the wars, the rise of Hitler, and the world immediately after World War II. In short, our current crisis is not new but rather a further maturing of forces that need to be understood in terms of decades and centuries, not election cycles.

Neumann’s concern has to do with what he calls “re-collectivization.” Drawing on Carl Jung’s theories of the “collective unconscious” as a trans-personal connection between individuals within a tribe or culture, and to a lesser extent, among all humanity, Neumann argues that we have lost our connection to the collective unconscious. The Renaissance is a convenient signpost marking a transition away from societies (or more accurately, tribes) with a strong collective connection toward more individuality. As people became more individuated, they slowly lost awareness of the collective unconscious and its guidance became unavailable to them.

Neumann argues (pp. 381ff) that humans are really quite bad at being individuals. Without the structure of the collective unconscious giving us foundations for our thinking and parameters for what is acceptable, we inevitably seek re-collectivization by joining “mass collectives” which provide us with “participation mystique” (p. 383). This is not participation in a true collective unconscious (thus it’s a “mystique” and not a reality, in his terminology); it is more akin to the joy or “mystique” of joining a bandwagon. But because the foundations of these mass collectives are arbitrary to anyone outside the collective (for instance, the Tea Party in 2008 or Bernie Sanders’ appeal in 2012), different collectives mass together but inevitably disagree with each other, often violently.

Being American, I will illustrate with the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It’s a fine historical document, but today we wonder just what is so self-evident about these truths. We wonder because they are no longer so self-evident. In fact there are competing sets of self-evident truths. Alongside these truths of American civil religion, there are the self-evident truths of Islam. Many Americans have been scandalized by certain members of the Trump administration who are trying to institute the self-evident truths of a certain flavor of fundamentalist Protestantism that is utterly foreign to people living on either coast. There is also the rise of Putin’s Russia and the newly reminted China and the self-evident truths of these two cultures are as frightening as the self-evident truths of Islam or Christian fundamentalism.

This also occurred a couple of generations earlier (as Neumann observed) in Europe. Germany, France, and Italy were deeply divided with differing mass collectives that broadly broke down into Communist, Fascist, or Capitalist collectives. The result was the two World Wars. Being isolated, North America was not on the cutting edge of this process and the center held for a couple more decades. To an extent with the Korean War, and certainly by the Viet Nam war, a similar process, but with different collective sensibilities, occurred in the United States.

Europe recognized the terrible consequences of this “schism of systems” and was able to unite under a new mass collective banner represented by the European Union. But it is now clear that the values that underlie the EU while widespread, are still perceived as arbitrary, and not everyone has bought in. The result is schism, many of them violent, both on the national level (Greece and Britain chafing under th EU, for instance) and also internecine conflict, illustrated best in France where the North African French and francophone Africans have not bought into the collective assumptions of the majority of French people.

In the United States this schism of mass collectives is jumbled, the divides cutting in different and sometimes seemingly contradictory directions. There is a race divide. As the old mass collective began to break down in the 1950s and 60s racial tensions between Blacks and Whites as well as Native Americans and Whites shattered the illusion of a true collective consciousness. In my childhood memory, the Black Panthers and Wounded Knee were the exclamation marks of this deep divide.

Today, alongside the racial tensions, we have a mass collective that seeks security (build a wall) and a different mass collective that seeks openness (we are a great country because we are a country of refugees). Each collective interprets the fundamental social problems differently. Neumann describes it as follows (referring to 1940s Europe, and not contemporary America):

The disintegration of the old system of values is in full swing. God, King, Fatherland, have become problematical quantities, and so have Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, love and fair play, human progress, and the meaning of existence. This is not to say that they will not continue to influence our lives as transpersonal quantities of an archetypal nature; but their relation to one another is questionable, and their old hierarchical order has been destroyed. (p. 390)

I find Neumann’s argument completely convincing and very well documented. It is even more so because of how his predictions have played out in the sixty-five years since he wrote the book. And since this is the case, it is also clear that the manner in which the church has set its priorities (aligning itself with one mass collective against another) actually supports and furthers the “schism of systems” rather than healing it.

Extroverted means of dealing with social crises (that is, the social justice sensibility of most Protestants and many Catholics) actually pits the varying mass collectives against each other. Neumann worried about this also. “[T]he individual who lacks the support of a compensatory movement inside himself [ie, a strong identification with the predominant mass collective] drops out of the ordered fabric of civilization.” The result is “a shrinking of world horizons and the loss of all certainty and meaning in life” (p. 390). This is a near perfect description of the nihilism that underlies the random American violence from Oklahoma City (1995) to Las Vegas (2017).

But as dire as Neumann’s description is, he does not despair. This isn’t a static state in his view, it’s a necessary process we are in the midst of. This is the inevitable consequence of the rise of the individual that began with the Renaissance. But we now have to move beyond it. The knee jerk human reaction to the rise of individual consciousness is the inevitably destructive and cruel mass collective. The actual next step (redeveloping and rediscovering a true collective consciousness) is exceedingly difficult and so we had to be faced with the terrible consequences of individual consciousness in order to motivate us toward the next step.

Returning to his field of expertise, he compares our situation to adolescence (pp. 392ff). The terrible necessity of adolescence is that they have to go through a disintegration of personality (the one given to them by their family unit) in order to begin the process of reintegration of personality so that the adolescent can become a true individual. Similarly, we have experienced a disintegration of tribe and culture in the last 500 years. The key task now is not primarily to help the poor and oppressed, but rather to reintegrate disparate groups into an authentic society so that the poor and oppressed are no longer marginalized.

I will argue in the next essay that the Church is uniquely qualified to lead in this process. I will further argue that the specific gift we have to offer is not the work of social justice but rather authentic prayer centered in the Eastern Christian sensibility that the whole point of salvation is union with God.

Footnote: Jung’s and Neumann’s idea of the collective unconscious is similar, but not identical, to the Christian doctrine of shared human nature (Greek physis). The fact that the collective unconscious sounds so wacky to us is simply an indication of how deeply the alienation growing out of our emphasis on individuality, affects us, even in the church where we have a doctrine for that.

Next essay: A Brief Introduction to Prayer of the Heart

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Judgment and Mercy

I have talked about the problem of translating “justice” (Hebrew is mishpat) previously in essays such as My Sojourn with the Social Justice Warriors, The Really Hard Part, and Oppressed-a-non. I want to revisit this topic in more depth as a starting place for this series of essays because we tend to turn the meaning of mishpat on its head. The familiar words of Amos 5:24 offer an example. The translation of record of mainstream Protestantism, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) reads, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This translation makes it sound like Amos is offering a hopeful vision of the future, a glimpse of the Kingdom.

But this is not what Amos has in mind. The King James Version (KJV, translated long before our modern sensibilities of social justice) says that “judgment” (not “justice”) will roll down. In case we are confused by the meaning of judgment and who will be judged, Amos continues by describing its nature: “Therefore I will cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus” (v. 27).

Another word found frequently alongside mishpat is tzedakah, translated “righteousness” above in v. 24. When mishpat is rendered as “justice” rather than “judgment,” righteousness can also be misleading. The word is similar to mishpat, but again our contemporary usage of “justice” will too easily get in the way of understanding what’s going on. Rabbi Joseph Teluskin says,

From Judaism’s perspective, therefore, one who gives tzedaka is acting justly; one who doesn’t, unjustly. And Jewish law views this lack of justice as not only mean-spirited but also illegal. Thus, throughout history, whenever Jewish communities were self-governing, Jews were assessed tzedaka just as everyone today is assessed taxes.

Teluskin goes on to quote Maimonides,

There are eight degrees of tzedaka, each one superior to the other. The highest degree … is one who upholds the hand of a Jew reduced to poverty by handing him a gift or a loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding work for him, in order to strengthen his hand, so that he will have no need to beg from other people.

What Teluskin describes is something quite different than what comes to mind when we say righteousness will flow down. The English word that comes far closer to this sensibility is “mercy.” In fact the same word tzedakah is one of those multi-purpose Hebrew words that is so rich in variation that there is no good single English equivalent. It certainly means righteousness, but not in the Calvinistic sense of something that only God has the ability to give, rather it is a description of the moral life. When your children ask you in times to come, “What is the meaning of [the Torah]? … Then you say … If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right (tzedek)” (Deut. 6:20, 25). The Talmud (Bava Bathra 9b) says: “Tzedakah [and the Bava Bathra seems to have mercy or charity in mind] is equal to all the other commandments combined.”

What is striking is that neither Hebrew word actually includes the idea that we should fix the root problem of poverty (the current conception of social justice). Alms-giving and the righteousness that grows out of that lies at the heart of both the Old Testament and Talmudic system. This is not surprising when we put the words mishpat and tzedakah into a political context. The nearly universal form of government in the ancient near east was monarchy. This is also the context of the New Testament which was written within the borders of the Roman Empire. There were exceptions (and Teluskin describes “self-governing Jewish communities” as an example), but for most of history, fixing the system was not an option; you either helped the poor by giving them food or money (tzedakah) or you got involved in a plot to overthrow the King or Queen (mishpat).

The equation seems rather different today. Most of us in the Western world live in a country with some variant of a representative democracy. Switzerland is the only country I’m aware of that is close to a true democracy, but most of the rest of us have at least some say indirectly through our representatives. This new political environment was not envisioned by the writers of scripture. Political theology today recognizes there is a third way beyond the traditional meanings of mishpat and tzedakah; we can work to change the system to be more friendly to the poor and oppressed. Our newer understanding of “justice” reflects this, and I suspect that this is why the word mishpat is now almost universally translated into English as “justice” rather than “judgment” and tzedakah as “righteousness” rather than “mercy” (although the latter remains a bit curious).

Unfortunately, this hope that we can fix the system, while a nice theory, has not worked very well. While the poor and oppressed are incomparably better off today than they were in the first century, the systemic problems of poverty and oppression persist. Sadly, three centuries or more of enlightened governance has changed few of these realities. For those in power there is always a loophole. Furthermore, the rich and powerful continue to appear to be ignorant and unresponsive to the fundamental needs of society. Here in the United States tzedakah as “righteousness” is not, nor has it ever been the righteous system that supports everyone, rhetoric of the City shining on a hill notwithstanding, rather tzedakah as “mercy” or “alms” remains the only practical way forward as we seek to become a righteous people of God.

Although the Talmud does not speak to this issue to my knowledge, I have one more observation about social righteousness: It is tempting to try to fix others or fix the system in place of fixing myself. There are at least two reasons for this. First, fixing others is a necessarily public action and we receive praise and increase our stature for such public actions. Fixing myself is (or should be) a private affair that should remain between God, me, and my confessor. It’s harder to get excited about something for which we don’t receive praise. Second, fixing myself is an extremely difficult task. Even though actual progress can be made on fixing myself and even though there is little historical evidence that fixing others is or ever has been an effective strategy, we tend to follow the path that leads to little resistance and lots of praise, while ignoring the historical evidence.

Next essay: Utopia, Dystopia, the Social Gospel, and the Return of Christ

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Introduction to Prayer as Social Justice

In a previous essay I made the claim, in the context of Carl Jung’s Hero model of transforming the world, that liberal Protestantism is extroverted in sensibility while Orthodoxy is centroverted. In trying to sort out the implications of this, I keep circling back to the role of prayer in our efforts toward a just world.

The heart of Orthodox sensibility is that we are called, not to change the world, but to change ourselves. This goes against the current of contemporary thinking. One might even think this leads to naval gazing or a self-centered morality that has little or nothing to do with social justice. But as we come to understand the various components of this conundrum, a way forward will hopefully become more clear. I will explore this in several essays that together form a monograph, critiquing social justice as I practiced it when I was a pastor in a mainline Protestant denomination.

  1. Judgment and Mercy, will evaluate the meaning of two Hebrew terms typically translated as “justice and righteousness”
  2. Utopia, Dystopia, the Social Gospel, and the Return of Christ. This essay will examine recent history and how that has caused us to think in a binary manner and how this binary thinking has both shaped our view of the world and blinded us to possible options.
  3. The Schism of Systems: Culture in Crisis is an essay that will consider Erich Neumann’s analysis of the same crisis in Europe sixty years ago. Neumann’s analysis is helpful because he uses psychological and anthropological frames of refernce. These frameworks provide clarity to some theological ideas that are at the center of both social justice and an Orthodox understanding of prayer.
  4. A Brief Introduction to Prayer of the Heart. Neumann makes some crazy sounding claims and proposes some even crazier ideas based on those claims. In this essay we’ll discover that Neumann may not be crazy at all, and in fact sounds a lot more like a Church Father talking about prayer than he does a modern psychologist talking about cultural maturity.
  5. My Neighbor, Myself is a brief application of the theory of prayer of the heart using the last couple years of my life to illustrate the application.
  6. Prayer as Social Justice tries to answer the question, “Is this really social justice or am I just kidding myself?” In order to answer that question I revisit “justice and righteousness” or “judgment and mercy”, depending on the era (maybe I should stick with “mishpat and tzedakah”) as a way of bringing these essays full circle.

 

Secondary Education

Jer. 15:15-21 (Ex. 3:1-15), Rom. 12:9-21, Mt. 16:21-28 (for Sep 3, 2017)

We have come to the great turning point in Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary. We might think of it as the end of primary school and the matriculation to secondary school. So far the message has been the Kingdom of God but now we move to the Cross of Christ. We might summarize Jesus’ message as follows:

  1. Virtue will ultimately win (the message of the Kingdom of God)
  2. Virtue can only win by losing (the Cross of Christ)
  3. Virtue is not incremental (the process of getting better and better) but emergent.

The hard part of this lesson (the thing that makes this secondary education rather than primary education) lies in the question, “But why does evil have to win?” The answer is that it’s not precisely accurate to say that evil has to win, rather it has to reveal itself for what it is. This goes back to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. One dare not remove the tares from the wheat until they are both mature or the harvester will inevitably confuse the two. There is a catch: a tare, being a tare, will grow more aggressively and it will appear that the tare will squeeze out the wheat. In other words, it will appear that evil is winning.

With this in mind, let’s return to the third point above. Not only is virtue emergent, evil is also emergent. Prior to the most recent election cycle there was a predominant (barely predominant, but predominant nonetheless) consensus that liberalism was virtuous and conservatism was not. The conservative tendency to hold on to “outdated” ideas (and for this consensus to hold, the questionable assumptions must be made 1. that it is outdated and 2. that which is outdated is less virtuous) made it “obvious” that conservativism is mean (which literally means “small minded”). When Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, there was a great deal of fear (driven by the predominant consensus) that a great deal of meanness and evil would result when (not if, but when) Hillary Clinton won the election.

We will never know whether the Republicans would have lost graciously, but what was revealed was a shocking level of malevolence and evil on behalf of supposedly virtuous liberal culture toward conservative culture. “Sore loser” doesn’t even come close to describing it. The media, rather than just analyzing the loss, began to systematically dehumanize Donald Trump and his supporters. (This is, by the way, when I canceled my subscription to the Washington Post. They had by far the best post-election coverage, but mixed in with that outstanding coverage was a malevolence and dehumanization of the perceived enemy that sunk to such depths I couldn’t read the paper without being dragged down into the muck.

This is not to say the conservatives were virtuous. Tit for tat, they were busy dehumanizing the liberals and also participating in the same evil the liberals were enslaved by and American society sunk to a new low of dehumanization and evil that has led many intellectuals to seriously wonder whether this is the beginning of the end of democratic experiment of America that was begun some 250 years ago.

And this brings me back to the Gospel lesson. In the midst of this emergent evil I try valiantly to not become a Peter. In Matthew Jesus said that he must be crucified at the hands of the religious leaders. Peter said it absolutely would not happen, and Jesus immediately and with no equivocation said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” To use a football metaphor, it’s the third quarter and virtue is losing badly in this quarter. (The leader of the apostles just got called satan!) To return to the parable, this is the quarter where the tares grow madly like weeds (which they are) while the wheat continues its steady pace. But it’s only the third quarter and the victory of losing (the victory of the cross) will only be revealed at the resurrection. The end game is not yet afoot.

But Jesus has now turned to our secondary education. We must learn that what we thought was virtue must die so that a new and even more glorious virtue can emerge. Virtue is not the good stuff we used to do made even better; virtue is a divine gift that can only be received when we recognize that the stuff we were holding on to is rubbish. The Kingdom of God is the first half of the game. The Cross is the third quarter (where we are now), but victory only comes in the fourth quarter.

This doesn’t mean that I believe the United States will come out of this stronger and better. (This isn’t about the U.S., it’s about the Kingdom of God and we ought not confuse the two!) The United States as a leader in democracy, human rights, and what we thought to be virtuous, might be in its final death throes (although I actually doubt that is the case). What we do know is that we need to let our old virtue die. We need to recognize that the whole myth of a Christian nation was not wheat but tares. We need to recognize the tares, the evil, for what it is. Only when we let go all those values we held so dearly … only when we die, will it be revealed what actual victory looks like. “Get behind me Satan!”

Commenting on God’s promise to Abraham that his offspring would be slaves for 400 years before they became a great nation (in Lecture X of his “Bible Series” on YouTube), Jordan B. Peterson observed that tyranny precedes freedom. “All people are subject to the tyranny before freedom.” The only way to throw off the shackles tyranny is to die, and so the path through is the path of the Cross. To deny this is satanic and to that Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!” As Peterson would probably say to this, “Yeah, that’s one hell of a deal, man.” But that’s the way it is. Welcome to your secondary education.

Gender Identity and the Passions

I watched a twitter tiff unfold last week that was rooted in two people talking right past each other. Natasha Sistrunk Robinson (@sista_theology) tweeted something in defense of LGBT people after President Trump’s tweet about trans people no longer being welcome in the military. Sistrunk Robinson considers herself an evangelical (MA from Gordon Conwell) but many of here evangelical brothers and sisters aren’t so thrilled to have her in the evangelical fold because “she sees life differently,” as one of her defenders (Jemar Tisby, see below) commented.

In this case, the issue everyone thought was in question was “human rights.” But the conceptions of the extent of our essential humanity were so different that no communication was happening. Given the fact that everyone involved seemed to have theological degrees from reputable schools (Gordon Conwell, Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster) one would think the issue of presuppositions would be explored. It never was.

The church fathers were always busy exploring the nature of our humanity and among the things they considered fundamental realities were:

  • Our passions are expressions of our false selves. They are an expression of the heart which is “devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).

  • We are becoming; our being has not yet matured to (or been revealed in) its final form. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet be revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). All sorts of things are being revealed. Our work will be revealed “with fire” (1 Cor. 3:13), and “the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” It is therefore false to assume that the things we assume define our humanity right now are the things that actually define our humanity. We are in flux and not yet revealed fully.

This problem of defining what it means to be human is exacerbated in Western cultures, where some form of capitalism has been the economic philosophy du jour for centuries. Jemar Tisby (Executive Director of the Reformed African American Network) said, “A lotta people say America’s original sin is racism. I disagree. America’s original sin is greed. … And without that driving principle of greed, slavery loses its foundation” (from a lecture at the RAAN national convention).

If we put Tisby’s insight into the context of the church fathers we can also say that America was founded, not with our virtues in mind (as an actual Christian nation might do) but rather with our vices. Civility, in a capitalist society, is brought about by playing my vices off of your vices. If the expression of my vice begins to impinge on your freedom to express your vice, then law steps in and adjudicates.

In this context where greed (and the other passions, to use the father’s term) are accepted as normal, there is a tendency to begin to think of the passions (which are, for the most part, quite pleasant to indulge in) as normative. In other words, we begin to think that we are our passions. We celebrate entrepreneurs as the drivers of our good lives and in the process fail to recognize the avarice and lack of social justice that drives entrepreneurial culture. The sexual harassment culture that is only now being admitted to in the high tech industry is just the latest example of the subtle assumption that our passions are who we are, and the role of government is mostly to keep a lid on competing passions.

It is therefore no surprise at all that when we begin to define our humanity in terms of our passions as currently expressed in a manner pleasant to us, that transgender identification seems to be normative and, by extension, a proper expression of the image of God in our humanity.

So, if this is the path you want to go down (and it is the necessary path to follow if you decide to espouse gender identity rights), at the very least recognize the roots of this sort of thinking. Just because the church fathers said what they said about the passions does not necessarily make it right. But the other side of the coin is also true. Just because our culture, which is rooted in the principle of greed and celebrates everything from gluttony to lust to envy, etc, has come to a general conclusion that these passions are not only good but what properly define us as humans, it doesn’t make it necessarily right.

Until the last century, Christian culture has been a culture of self-denial, not self-expression. This is one of the fundamental Christian presuppositions that was never even considered in the Twitter tiff between theologically trained Reformed evangelical Christians. As alarming as our President is, that is far more alarming to me, as a Christian, than a tweet by a President (who is seemingly consumed and controlled by his passions) about whether transgender people are welcome in the military.