Do Justice and Love Kindness: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 30 January 2011

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 30 January 2011 (Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, Year A)

Micah 6:1-8Psalm 151 Corinthians 1:18-31Matthew 5:1-12

When I started in on this week’s readings I realized that I was largely duplicating a reflection that I’d written back in October on the nature of justice as a theological category, so what follows is largely going to be a reworking of that post (which I liked).  I just figured our readers should know that this is more of a revision than an invention this week.

I have to admit that few conversations are closer to a guarantee of hurt feelings than when the phrase “social justice” comes up in Christian circles.  No matter who I’m talking to, I know that my position is going to end up odious.  For those whose piety runs towards equating Christian commitment and activism in behalf of the poor, especially those folks who think that such advocacy can and should go through the channels of a federal political party, I can’t help but appear a fatalist of sorts (though I prefer to think of it as providence rather than fate).  I do grant that some manners of governing are worse than others, and I certainly think it’s the educated Christian’s duty to be educated and to speak the truth regarding the state, but I’ve also got a deep suspicion that aligning one’s self, much less one’s God, against this or that political faction runs too much a danger of idolatry, especially when being against one faction, in America’s Manichean political arena, means allying with the other.  I prefer to be a Platonist of sorts, never ceasing to note where this or that candidate’s platform is actually promising bad things and of course never forgetting that a campaign promise is only as good as the diluted delivery later.  To someone fully invested, say, in the administration of Barack Obama or to the activities of Sojourners, I no doubt come across as aloof, more concerned with some abstract “moral purity” than with “results.”  (I disagree, but my disagreement seldom counts for much.)

On the other hand, because I do think that some governments are worse than others, and that staying informed on the actual substance of governance (rather than birth certificates, tasteless remarks on television interviews, and malapropisms) is worth a Christian’s time and effort to understand, and that republics are ultimately better for my neighbors than are tyrannies, I know that I must appear entirely too “political” to others.  (Of course, Aristotle would never have understood how “political” can be an indictment, since the human being is an animal who lives as part of a polis, but I don’t expect too many people to be familiar with Aristotle.)  What these folks often ask is whether I’m saved by justice or by mercy, the implication, as I take it, being that I’m somehow in favor of one thing for myself before God (mercy) but something entirely different, and perhaps even contradictory, for the other person (justice).  I’ll admit that I’ve never been quick enough on my feet to ask the next, properly Socratic question, so I suppose this little essay is my attempt to do so.

So when Micah, in this week’s readings, calls both for justice and kindness, I find myself revisiting the justice-or-mercy question.  In my estimation (and I’m always glad to entertain that I’m wrong in my estimations–the comment bar is just below), framing justice and mercy as two dialectical poles in perpetual tension assumes some things about reality that, in my estimation, are bad assumptions.  Two categories that theologians use when they talk about being (or Being, if you’re German) are univocal and analogous.  (Some also talk about polyvocal being, but I’ve not been able to make sense of that.)  Those who are of the camp of Thomas Aquinas (like myself) tend to say that the sentences “God exists” and “God is good” and “God is love” are statements that assume analogy, in other words that God’s being is related somehow to what we mortals think of as existence, but the confessions of God’s immortality and God’s omnipotence mean that the things that define (to be woodenly etymological for a second, those things that “put limits on”) our existence don’t define God’s.  And our threescore-plus-ten lives mean that what we think of as love (of the eros or of the agape varieties, really) are related to but don’t stand identical with God’s love.  Our being is related to God’s being, so that the sentence “God is love” means something, but it does not encompass the totality of that reality in the way that “Gilmour is a mortal” does.  And so on.  The camp that claims that being is univocal (among them Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and most popular atheist writerss of the twenty-first century) say that the sentences “God exists” and “Gilmour exists” are only different in their subjects, not their predicates.  Most (perhaps not Richard Dawkins) would then say that further true sentences about God would not be true sentences about Gilmour, but for the univocalist, predicates of existence and such are of the same type irrespective of their subjects.

I think that those who chastise the justice-seekers as hypocrites, as folks who want mercy for themselves but justice for others, are reading justice univocally, and frankly, I think most iterations of this sort of mistake begin with Anselm of Canterbury.  In Anselm’s atonement theology, the punishment for sin stands in the same schema as do punishments for civil crimes, and in medieval law codes, a crime against a peasant simply does not carry the same sort of liability as does a crime against a freeman carries, and likewise for a nobleman, and supremely for a king.  Anselm, familiar as he was with the contours of criminal law, simply extrapolated upwards in this scheme of crime and punishment and held that, if the punishment for wronging a king is the death of the mortal 0body, then the punishment for wronging God must be the death of the immortal soul.  In order for the injustice of a wronged God to be righted, according to this theory, only the execution of another God could set things right.  And since there is only one person of the Trinity who could die, namely the Son, Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross becomes the solution to the eternal legal problem of a wronged God.

I have to admit that there’s some elegance in the formulation, but I do think that it relies on an assumption that the king is as different from a peasant as God is from the king, and that’s where I think univocal metaphysics misses the boat.  I’m not going to deny that penal substitutionary atonement is a valid theory of atonement (although I neither think of it as uniquely valid nor as the most adequate to Biblical revelation, but that’s for another post); what I do deny is that the radical difference between mortals and God meanders down some “chain of being” in ways that can render any calls for earthly justice hypocritical.

I hold, to the contrary, that relationships between God and mortals are metaphysically different from relationships between rulers and subjects (much less between magistrates and citizens), and because the relationship between the powerful and the weak should be one of brotherhood rather than of semi-divine magnanimity, I think that “justice” (Latin ius and Greek dikaiosyne and Hebrew mishphat, for those keeping score at home) becomes something other than justice when it’s limited only to the enforcement of contracts, tempered on occasion by the generosity of the powerful.  Certainly the Old Testament prophets were not merely calling for contract-enforcement when Isaiah condemned those who despoil widows by adding field to field and when Amos called out the predatory lenders in Samaria (and their wives, who grazed like cows on the “fields” of wealth taken from the poor).  I don’t think that any of the prophets entertained even for a moment that Israel’s sins of idol-worship would be mitigated by generosity (so put your “works-righteousness” gun away, cowboy), but because the rich and the poor are very much alike, and because the rich and God are very much unlike, the calls for divine mercy and the calls for earthly justice could come from the same mouth/pen/oracle without much of a thought that mercy and contract-enforcement were somehow contradictory poles that must be synthesized.  They were simply parts of a whole, and that whole was called mishphat, justice.

None of this lets the social-justice advocates off the hook, of course.  As I noted earlier in the post, far too often any old cause of the New Left gets baptized in the name of being not-fundamentalist, and far too little inspection and criticism happens, especially when libertarian/capitalist categories of “choice” and “rights” rather than Christian practices like hospitality and thankfulness govern Christian discourse about “issues.” The univocality of Being once again threatens what I take to be genuine Christian reflection in these circles as well: throwing one’s time, effort, money, and sometimes more behind the DNC (just as much as the GOP) machine far too often requires participation in the Manichean machinery of American political discourse, and  such participation far too often loses sight of the common lot of mortals in light of the strong analogical difference between God and humanity.  (And there are few more dishonest moments than when a dedicated New-Left Democrat says that “this is not a left-right issue”: if I had money to gamble, I would bet every time that the next line out of the New-Left Democrat’s mouth is going to be party-line social liberalism.)  Not unlike the Right-Wingers that the Christian Left (rightly) holds in suspicion, the stance in favor of some kinds of Social Justice tends towards a strong division: contract-enforcement for one’s political enemies and seeking-for-shalom for one’s political friends.  The urge is neither inhuman nor unexpected, but it’s not all that different from its mirror image.  The hesed and the mishphat that Micah points to in this week’s reading call everyone to account and to repentance, not in the spirit of some flattened “moral equivalence” but in the realization that, when seen in the light of analogically different divine justice and kindness, no mortal’s sense of the good life should remain un-illuminated.  Perhaps the best place to start is indeed to walk humbly.

Of course, I acknowledge that my own politics, the incorrigible Athenian democrat and Roman republican that I am, deserve scrutiny.  My point here is that the philosophical assumptions we bring to words like “salvation” and “justice” render them anything but self-evident.  In other words, this long and rambling meditation is going to end with a call for more, not less, theology.

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