A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the protests arising out of the George Floyd murder, the Presidential election, and the President’s attempt to stop the publication of John Bolton’s book (even though prior restraint has been disfavored since before the Declaration of Independence),[1] we have this week a breath of fresh air from, of all places, the United States Supreme Court. We have Justice Roberts’ opinion holding that the administration didn’t go through all the proper steps when it repealed DACA; we also have the Court declining to jump into two politically volatile cases, involving the California rule allowing for sanctuary cities, and a New Jersey statute restricting the right to carry a handgun outside the home. However, one opinion in particular is almost startling both in its clarity of thought and the principles that lie behind it.

Bostock v. Clayton County, holds that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits an employer from discriminating against an individual because of the individual’s sex, prevents firing someone because they are homosexual or transgender. The facts were undisputed. The employers admitted that they fired the plaintiffs of their sexual orientation.[2] They contended, however, that this was not a firing because of “sex,” because sexual orientation is not the same thing as sex. Judge Gorsuch, writing for the Court, says, in effect, “let’s look at that proposition.” He starts with a fairly conservative notion, that the term sex, in the statute, refers to the biological distinction between male and female. He then says, what are the facts behind these cases? Two men reveal to their employer that they are gay, and are promptly fired. What does it mean, Justice Gorsuch asks, that they are gay? Well, it means, for instance, that they prefer intimate relations with men. Would these employers fire a woman for preferring intimate relations with men? Of course not. Therefore, the gender of these male employees was a “but-for cause” of their firing; women who sleep with men don’t get fired, but men who sleep with men do. In the third case, an employee who originally presented as male when she was hired was discharged after informing her employer that she planned to “live and work full-time as a woman.” Judge Gorsuch says, wait a minute, you don’t fire biological females for wearing dresses and makeup. Therefore, this employee’s biological gender was a cause of the firing. The statute prohibits that, so all these firings were illegal.

There are several things to like about Judge Gorsuch’s opinion. First, it’s written just about as plainly as the way in which I’ve summarized it. One doesn’t need a law degree to understand it. Second, it rejects the “legislative intent” argument so frequently used to defeat progressive readings of a statute. Justice Gorsuch says he has a trump (no pun intended) card for legislative intent: the plain meaning of the statute. He admits that Congress didn’t have LGBTQ discrimination in mind when it enacted the statute in 1964. But, he says, sex means sex, and sex was undeniably a factor in these firings. This is a sort of jurisprudential jiu-jitsu by Justice Gorsich. “Plain meaning” as a rule of statutory construction is usually a way to avoid an expansive reading of a statute. Here, Justice Gorsuch uses the plain-meaning canon as a way to reach a result that is not only far beyond what Congress consciously intended but is also much more progressive than anyone currently expected. [3]  

Third, the opinion is admirably organized. It almost reads syllogistically: (1) Firings based on gender are illegal; (2) Bostock, et al, were fired because of behavior deemed “unacceptable” only in persons of their gender; therefore (3) Bostock’s firing, and the others, were illegal. One suspects that Justice Gorsuch got an “A” in undergraduate logic.

Fourth, the opinion, refreshingly, first and foremost decides the case before the Court, and the rights and obligations of these parties under this statute, rather than making broad policy pronouncements. It is a final ruling in a piece of litigation, not a law review paper. Thus, in response to Justice Alito’s dissent warning of an infringement on religious liberty, Justice Gorsich says that while another case might present that question, this case does not, so the religious liberty issue will have to wait for another day.

Finally, and most important, is the generosity of the opinion. It’s been said that the underlying theme for many employment discrimination cases is that the plaintiff was a pain in the butt at work. Perhaps, but in this opinion not only is there no hint of that,[4] but Justice Gorsuch goes out of his way to make clear that it wouldn’t matter: “the plaintiff’s sex,” he writes, “need not be the sole or primary cause of the employer’s adverse action.” Reasonableness and generosity, in fact, are two of the elements of legal equity so long missing in our jurisprudence. Equity is designed to achieve results that satisfy the conscience of the community at its most noble, and presumes, when possible, not to impute an ignoble intent to the legislature. The reason that Justice Gorsuch is comfortable in making the “plain meaning” argument is that it is the generous reading of the statute. Of course, you can hear him say, firing gay persons just because they are gay is discriminatory: what do you think? He writes “(A)pplying protective law to groups that were politically unpopular at the time of the law’s passage…often may be seen as unexpected. But to refuse enforcement just because of that, because the parties before us happened to be unpopular at the time of the law’s passage, would not only require us to abandon our role as interpreters of statutes; it would tilt the scales of justice in favor of the strong or popular and neglect the promise that all persons are entitled to the benefit of the law’s terms.”

Notably, there is no mention in Justice Gorsuch’s opinion of the constitutional right to privacy – the right, Justice Douglas called it “to be left alone,” which certainly makes it one of the gloomiest of all fundamental rights. Justice Alito, dissenting from Justice Gorsuch’s opinion and arguing that the statute did not prohibit the firings, brings the right of privacy up, claiming that the majority opinion poses a threat to it (along with freedom of religion and freedom of speech). I suppose that’s true, if an employer’s right of privacy includes the right to be a jackass. (This makes the case notable for another reason, as it represents the only time that Justice Alito wrote an opinion expressing a concern for the right of privacy.)

Justice Alito goes on to say “No one should think that the Court’s decision represents an unal­loyed victory for individual liberty.” An odd comment, because Justice Gorsuch’s opinion is not founded on any conception of individual liberty. At heart, Justice Gorsuch invokes a different, old-fashioned, and perhaps even nobler principle; people have a right to be treated decently, and (because every right imposes a corresponding duty on someone else) we are all obligated to treat others decently. The opinion doesn’t say that, but it’s clearly what it means. We are to put the most generous interpretation reasonably possible on our laws, and in this case the most generous interpretation is that you can’t fire someone because of their romantic attractions.

So, we have two principles, one substantive and one procedural, that underly Justice Gorsuch’s opinion. People have a right to be treated decently, and when we read a statute we should impute the most generous intentions to the legislature that enacted it. Both of these principles transcend liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, black and white, gay and straight, and all the other divisions that so plague us today. We hope for more of the same from our newest Justice.

[1] See 4 Blackstone’s Commentaries 151 (1770)

[2] The opinion consolidates three separate cases, all of which presented essentially the same legal issue.

[3] Justice Alito, in dissent, accuses Justice Gorsich of reading the statute too broadly. Justice Kavanaugh, in a separate dissent, says that Justice Gorsich reads it too literally. That alone suggests that Justice Gorsich got it right.

[4] The opinion notes that Mr. Bostock led a department that won national awards, and the other two plaintiffs were fired almost immediately after their employers learned of their sexual orientation.

Mr. Smith Leaves Washington

I spent some of my lockdown time reading one of the great, and one of the underappreciated, books of Western social philosophy, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). The choice is, I suppose, no accident. I also read Scott’s Waverly, and found myself putting shortbread biscuits in my weekly grocery cart. I suspect an underlying grieving over the prospects of my getting back to Scotland anytime soon. Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, twenty miles or so from St Andrews, and he is buried in Canongate Kirkyard, just down the street from Holyrood Palace at the bottom of Calton Hill on one of my regular jogging routes in Edinburgh. The relative temperatures in St Andrews (48F/9C) and Brownsville (93/34) may also have something to do with this.

This is, indeed, the same Adam Smith that wrote The Wealth of Nations, the most famous book of economics of all time. Smith is generally regarded today as the patron saint (if not the inventor) of pure, unbridled free market capitalism, a champion of individualism and selfishness. The first part of Smith’s modern public legacy is incomplete; the second is simply wrong. The Wealth of Nations was titled very deliberately. It was not about how to maximize individual prosperity at the expense of those less fortunate. It was about Smith’s theory that the free market was the best way to enhance the wealth of the commons – literally, the wealth of the nation. If a rich man wanted to spend his money on luxuries, so be it; the invisible hand of the market would determine the best price for the extravagance and working people would earn a living making it. It was a good thing, he thought, that the wealthy liked mansions. Not only was the architecture pleasing to all that saw it, the construction job employed many. It would have been a loss, Smith thought, if the wealthy woke up to the fact that the mansion was scarcely any more serviceable as a home than the cottage. And while he did believe in limited government, the two purposes of government he endorsed – promoting a living wage for all and constructing the necessary infrastructure for society to operate – were a far cry from the 21st Century’s combination of laissez faire economics and egoistic ethics.

More importantly, The Wealth of Nations was the second part of a set, The Theory of Moral Sentiments being the first. Smith always intended them as a set and thought that The Theory of Moral Sentiments set the groundwork for the latter book. The first book continued a discussion of a theory started by fellow Scot Francis Hutcheson and continued by Smith’s friend and colleague David Hume, that humans have an innate moral sense that are as much like emotions as they are reason, that the most important moral sentiments are justice and benevolence, and that the faculty of sympathy is what connects citizens to each other in just and benevolent relationships. Justice comes from our ability to sympathize with the suffering of a victim; benevolence from the same ability to sympathize with those in trouble.

You could win a lot of bar bets at an economist convention, or flunk a lot of philosophy undergraduates, with this question:

Identify the author of this quote:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner.

  1.  Gandhi
  2. The Dalai Lama
  3.  Seneca
  4.  John Donne
  5. None of the above.

The correct answer, of course, is E; it is Adam Smith, from The Theory of Moral Sentiments. These were not, however, throwaway lines buried deep in the text. They are, in fact, the very first lines, from page one. Anyone that sees Smith as the prophet of greed must never have picked up TMS, because they would not have the excuse of quitting before the end.

Immanual Kant was apparently much impressed with and influenced by TMS. However, Smith’s philosophy, and that of the Scottish Enlightenment in general, takes a different tack what turned out to be Kant’s greatest legacy for the modern world: the idea that morality consists in mutual agreement on a rationally-derived set of rules by which to govern our conduct. Smith thought that our ability to form moral sentiments, based on our sympathetic instincts, was innate, although it clearly needed to be exercised and developed. He thought it was universal, not culturally-bound. Thus, for instance, the English colonizers and the Indian colonized could make moral judgments about each other – which, in Smith’s mind, usually reflected poorly on the English. Finally, because the ability to form moral sentiments was both innate and universal, central to correct behavior is the need for approbation of others. We conduct ourselves in a manner that will please others.

Current events make us doubt whether Smith’s view of morality as a sentiment rather than a set of rules was anything other than a fantasy. Certainly, the effectiveness of approbation as a curb on moral excess seems to be in question. In this country we have leaders, including our supreme leader, that invite rather than avoid public scorn. Likewise, Smith’s idea that moral sentiments are universal rather than local is being put to the test in a way we have not seen for generations. In a way I do not recall, it is in doubt whether persons of different races and backgrounds can possibly understand each other; there seems no doubt at the moment that they often do not. The assumption that they can have a common ground of understanding is central to the whole concept of multicultural society that we profess to aspire to, even if we fail to achieve. And we need that concept now more than ever. The word pandemic comes from the Greek for all (pan) and people (demic). A pandemic unites us, whether we like it or not.

That is, of course, assuming that we regard the populations most grievously impacted by the disease – in this country, primarily poor, urban, and ethnically in the minority – as people, or more accurately, as persons. John Locke said that person is a “forensic concept,” distinct from “human being.” By forensic I think he meant some combination of legal, ethical, and religious. Persons have rights and interest and responsibility, and a person can actually change over time. In our metric-obsessed time, persons are all too often reduced to statistics. Persons are not statistics. Smith supposes that all persons can, and should, govern our lives based on sentiments of mutual sympathy; he might even say that this capacity is central to the idea of personhood. That idea is under severe attack today. Sympathy in some quarters is regarded as a weakness, not a strength, and infection that can be contained to urban ghettos seems less troubling than the risk of an economic recession.

Nevertheless, we should hope that Smith was right on this last point. If there is anything we find ourselves in need of right now, it is a healthy dose of compassion for others. One of the great strengths of Smith’s philosophy is its capacity to make complex judgments taking into account multiple points of view. Smith compared the relationship between justice and the other virtues to the difference between grammar and writing elegance. Grammar, like justice, is a matter of rules. But just as one can write grammatically but woodenly, ineffectively, one can be strictly just and yet not morally admirable. So,

Mere justice is, upon most occasions, but a negative virtue, and only hinders us from hurting our neighbor. The man who barely abstains from violating either the person, or the estate, or the reputation of his neighbors, has certainly very little positive merit. He fulfills, however, all the rules of which is peculiarly called justice, and does every thing which his equals can with propriety force him to do, or which they they can punish him for not doing. We may often fulfil all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing. (TMS, 99).

Firehoses and tear gas are not capable of making fine moral distinctions, and deploring their use on crowds from the safety of our own homes, or in right-thinking phone chats, is justice of a very thin sort.

Benevolence. Sympathy. Universality. Equity. While we are sorely in need of them, right now, as Christians we immediately notice that they are at the heart of Christian confession. However, for sixty years at least, Christians have been told that their faith is purely a private affair, to be cordoned off from any discussion of public matters. To our shame, Christians have largely acquiesced in that, to the point that, as Stanley Hauerwas is so fond of reminding us, people go around saying something like “Well, I think Jesus was the Son of God, but that’s just my opinion.” On the other hand, Adam Smith emphasizes repeatedly the importance of the idea that there is a natural sense of duty that is not simply a contractually-assumed or politically-determined standard, that has its basis in fundamental justice (I avoid the term natural law, which in its technical sense is not something Smith believed in) and is subject to divine enforcement in the hereafter. Some have accused Smith, who may have been as much Deist as Christian, of thinking the latter a sort of convenient fiction, but even if there were true, and he did come from sturdy Presbyterian stock, he certainly found it a necessary one.

Perhaps what we are seeing is the playing-out of the idea that private morality is irrelevant to public life.  Christians, told to keep their religion to themselves and restricted to Sunday morning, have pretty much acquiesced. The cost to us of that idea have been incalculable. For most of our history, the great actors in social justice have been religious: William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu. Today, the field having been cleared, we have a president that bullies his way to the steps of a church building across the street from the White House, for a photo opportunity holding a Bible. Upside down. If you can’t find a message from God in that one, you’re just not listening. The president has indeed turned Scripture on its head.

Robert Burns was greatly influenced by The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a fact that gives me great pleasure, because it puts paid to two well-accepted bits of critical nonsense: that Smith was a callous, unfeeling champion of the rich, and that Burns was an unlettered farmer. The ending of “To a Louse” comes out of TMS almost verbatim:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see ourselves as others see us!

(The emphasis is in the original.) Giants walked the earth then. Perhaps they will again. But now, not so much.

Far More Can Be Mended Than You Know

One of my favorite books is Unapologetic, by Francis Spufford. An occasionally vulgar, frequently funny, and yet completely orthodox defense of Christian belief, Unapologetic has its own retelling of the Gospel story that is simply brilliant. That chapter, “Yeshua,” ends like this: 

Early Sunday morning, one of the friends comes back with rags and a jug of water and a box of the grave spices that are supposed to cut down on the smell. She’s braced for the task. But when she comes to the grave she finds that the linen’s been thrown into the corner and the body is gone. Evidently anonymous burial isn’t quite anonymous enough, after all. She sits outside in the sun. The insects have woken up, here at the edge of the desert, and a bee is nosing about in a lily like silk thinly tucked over itself, but much more perishable. It won’t last long. She takes no notice of the feet that appear at the edge of her vision. That’s enough now, she thinks. That’s more than enough.

Don’t be afraid, says Yeshua. Far more can be mended than you know.

“Far more can be mended than you know.” In my office, I have an autographed picture of Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, and I would gladly give it up to write one sentence that good in my lifetime. You could fill a room with theology books and sermons and commentaries that don’t explain the Good News as well as that. And it has the added benefit of being true. As we wake up on Easter, alone and scared, just as the first disciples did, we have evidence everywhere that, in the midst of a health crisis unprecedented in our lifetime, the world is also healing itself.

  • Even as people are isolated in their own homes, old grievances are being put aside. I myself know of two different people that have reconnected with family members after years of estrangement.
  • Reports from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and all around the world tell us that crime is down.
  • The water in the canals of Venice is clearer than anyone can remember, because there are no cruise ships and launches to drop petroleum and stir up the silt.
  • Air contamination in Delhi and Rio de Janeiro and other chronically polluted cities is one-tenth of normal. In fact, some reports from China suggest that more people (77,000 by one count) with chronic lung disease were spared death because of the cleaner air than died from coronavirus.
  • Along with a viral pandemic, we have a charitable epidemic. It comes from the wealthy: Bill Gates says that he will throw billions of dollars into producing vaccines even before they’re fully tested, just to be ready with the first one that does prove itself. And it comes from ordinary folk, whether it is seamstresses sewing face masks, or small distilleries making hand sanitizer, or, in our own Advent family, food bank volunteers delivering groceries to hungry families.
  • In the Hong Kong zoo, a pair of giant pandas has mated for the first time in more than ten years, apparently because of the increased privacy provided by the zoo’s closing (proving that pandas have a more highly developed sense of modesty than half of Hollywood, including anyone named Kardashian).
  • Here at home, I have been cutting the grass less often, and leaving it longer when I do cut it, because there are so many other things to attend to (and because I’m essentially lazy). What I didn’t expect is that the grass likes being left alone, and is sending out runners all over the bare spots in the yard.

And, interestingly, we have an incipient outbreak of equity — or, at least, a renewed consciousness of how inequitable our society has become. The virus’s tendency to prey on the chronically ill and undernourished, which in the United States means disproportionally people of color, reminds us of how inequitable much of modern life is. For instance, in Chicago, which has a 30% African American population, fully 70% of the Covid-19 deaths are African American. It’s like holding a match up to a paper with invisible ink writing — the message just appears. And people are responding. Governors and mayors urge that services and supplies be redirected to historically underserved areas. All across the country, thousands of nonviolent prisoners, many of whom never belonged in prison in the first place, are being released from incarceration to minimize virus outbreaks in overcrowded prisons and jails. Multiple senators and Congressmen who liquidated their portfolios even as the President was telling the nation that the coronavirus wasn’t as bad as the ordinary flu now face prosecution. Cities and states across the nation are ordering a halt to residential evictions, and paying emergency benefits without regard to immigration status. School districts are providing every student that needs one with a computer or tablet, to avoid a new era of educational segregation.

“Far more can be mended than you know.” In John’s gospel, Jesus’s last words from the cross are “It is finished.” Mark and Matthew say that Jesus let out a loud cry from the cross, and then dies. We’re not told, however, what that cry was. Luke has a different, and for me a more satisfying, ending; Jesus says “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Maybe that was the loud cry: a cry just as anguished as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A cry of resignation, that Jesus has done all he can do, and turns it over to his father.

Which is exactly what we are now asked to do. It should be some solace that the disciples, the weekend after the crucifixion, were hiding, despairing that their leader had been killed and their hopes dashed, and terrified that they would be next. They didn’t know how the story would turn out. Just like us, today. We are at home, alone, scared and frustrated. Scared for ourselves and our families. Scared for the church and the world. Not knowing how this will turn out. And yet, all around us, there are signs of things mending themselves. Life is not finished; it is only renewing.

But at some point it is up to us to continue the renewing. Samuel Johnson said that many people are more inclined to be friends of goodness than actually good themselves. It will not be enough to note the inequities around us. We will be required to do something about it. When Clementine Churchill told her husband Winston that his losing the 1945 election was a blessing, legend has it that he replied “Mrs. Churchill, if this is a blessing it is a well-disguised one.” No, the virus is not a blessing. But we do now have the opportunity to allow God’s healing power to work, and to join in that work.

Indeed, far more can be mended than we know. Happy Easter.

Lawyers, Guns and Money

Dear reader: Peace be with all of you in these difficult times. What follows is borrowed from a letter I sent to the members of my parish, for which I am the adult Christian formation director. It’s not quite on the usual topic of this blog, but I hope it brings you a bit of cheer at a time when we all need some.

One of the great cult rock songs from the California rock scene of the 1970s was “Lawyers Guns and Money” by Warren Zevon. You can listen to it here. It goes like this:

I went home with a waitress the way I always do
How was I to know she was with the Russians, too?

I was gambling in Havana, I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns, and money
Dad, get me out of this.

An innocent bystander
Somehow, I got stuck between a rock and a hard place
And I’m down on my luck
Yes, I’m down on my luck
Well, I’m down on my luck

I’m hiding in Honduras, I’m a desperate man
Send lawyers, guns, and money
The **** has hit the fan

“Lawyer, Guns, and Money” is more than a satire of late Cold War (or early hipster) culture. In fact, it is nothing less than a 20th Century lament. The lament mode must have appealed to Zevon; he also wrote “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” one of Linda Ronstadt’s biggest hits, for which the title pretty much says everything you need to know. The song is not an Old Testament lament. The singer in “Lawyers…”, on some sort of extended spring break lark, has discovered that there are dangerous people out there, and now, an “innocent bystander,” finds himself somehow stuck in a bad spot. None of this is his fault; he’s just “down on his luck.” And while his plea to his Dad for help may remind us of the Psalmist calling on God, nowhere do I recall the psalmist asking for lawyers or money. That one line in fact captures modern life better than almost anything I can think of. What do we do in times of distress or conflict? Start a war, call a lawyer, or spend some money. (Note: Zevon himself was certainly no whiner. He died at 56 from mesothelioma. A frequent guest on David Letterman, his only comment on his illness when he last appeared was “I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years.”)

The lament tradition, which draws on the Book of Deuteronomy’s covenant theology – that is, our well-being ultimately depends on God’s protection, which is offered to us as a package deal with God’s wisdom —  goes something like this:

Israel: What’s going on, God? Things are really bad right now.

God: What did you expect? Remember all those commands Moses gave you? Why didn’t you listen?

Israel: You were right, you were right. Please rescue us and we’ll do better from now on. You’re the greatest, God.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Lamentation is in fact a form of worship, perhaps the most profound, because we demonstrate our confidence in God by turning our sorrows over to Him. The Psalms are full of lamentations. Over and over again, the Psalmist moves from despair to hope. Thus, Psalm 69 starts out “Save me O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold.” By the end, however the Psalmist says “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.” Likewise Psalm 13 begins “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”, but ends “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation; I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” And, most familiar to us, Jesus invokes Psalm 22 from the cross, when he says ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is no accident that the Psalmist saw fit to follow that with the most beloved of all the psalms “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Christians know that God did not send this virus to us. There are a whole bunch of reasons that the God Christians know through Jesus did not do this, indeed could not have done this, to us, starting with the fact that God loves us and wants us to flourish, so that punishing us with a virus would be contrary to his essential nature, a sort of divine schizophrenia. (And, yes, not even God can do things that are logically impossible. That’s why asking, “Can God make a rock so big not even he can pick it up?” is a dumb question for anyone over about 8 years old. God can’t make a square triangle either.) Nor, in any meaningful sense, did we “cause” this. We certainly didn’t create the virus or make it angry. Viruses don’t have emotions. Christians emphatically believe that God is not indifferent to us, but viruses certainly are.

But although neither God nor humans caused this, its reality requires ordinary citizens to do something that 21st Century Westerners are not very good at: stop. Doctors, nurses, and scientists are rightfully searching for clues to how we can get ahead of this epidemic. That is what they should do. God gave us brains, and expects us to use them. But for the vast majority of us that aren’t medical professionals or scientists, the smartest thing we can do is, simply, nothing. Stay at home and give the professionals space to work. That, for modern persons, is the hardest thing to do. We are much better at go than at stop.

At heart, a lament is a prayer that arises from suffering. It’s not simply a complaint about our condition, although it is that. It is a leap of faith that our prayers will be answered. You may recall the scene from Indiana Jones  and the Last Crusade where Indy, to retrieve the Holy Grail and save his wounded father, steps out into the abyss and finds a bridge across a bottomless chasm. The hard part for us is that we are all wired in some fashion to be like Indiana Jones, to charge into danger. That’s part of the charm of the movie. The audience cannot unremember that Harrison Ford is not only Indiana Jones but also Han Solo of Star Wars fame, and his father, played by Sean Connery, is most famous as British agent James Bond. We could scarcely find two actors less associated with characters that rely on faith rather than effort.

Yet, that is precisely what we are called to do: stay at home, to wait on the Lord. Psalm 27 tells us:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid

 When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—

my adversaries and foes—they shall stumble and fall.

 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;

though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:

to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,

To behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;

he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me,

and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;

I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”

Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.

Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

 If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence. 

 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

 Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Written in the First Temple period, when the belief was that YHWH actually resided in the Temple, the Psalm seems to describe a physical journey to the temple, where the psalmist will take refuge literally “in the house of the Lord,” and asks for protection from adversaries along the journey. Neither Christians nor Jews today, however, believe that access to and protection by God requires us to go anywhere. There is no single, physical residence for God. Rather, we take refuge in the Holy Spirit, which is available to us anywhere. The psalmist says “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” That is what is required of us today, and that is something we can do at home, with each other’s help.

Finally, I got this from a friend yesterday:

World: There’s no way we can shut everything down in order to lower emissions, slow climate change and protect the environment.

Mother Nature: Here’s a virus. Practice.

To his credit, my friend, agnostic through and through, did not blame the pandemic on God — unlike many nonbelievers, who keep God around for the sole purpose of blaming Him for everything that’s wrong with the world. However, while God did not send us the virus, God does expect us to learn some things from it. My prayer today is that we take Him up on the opportunity. The world will change because of this; the question is how. This is a chance to practice things we may have forgotten about. Guns are not going to get us out of this crisis, and neither are lawyers (believe it or not) or, for that matter, money. What will, is faith, and hope, and charity. Faith that the extraordinary things demanded of us now will work. Hope that we have the strength to do it. And charity for each other as we do this.

My other prayer for today is to remember that there are people that cannot stay at home and wait: first responders, health care professionals, grocery store and pharmacy workers, caregivers, law enforcement officers, and so on. Even as we get anxious to reenter the larger world, they would want nothing more than to be sheltered at home with their loved ones. Let’s all pray that they be safe as they put themselves at risk for our sake.

God bless us, every one.

Forty Days and Counting

Ash Wednesday

Today, the beginning of Lent, is the one day when Christians in the Western church ask themselves a theological question. Not “what is the nature of the Trinity,” or “how is the doctrine of predestination consistent with free will,” but “if I give up chocolate now, isn’t it sinful that all that Valentine’s candy will go to waste?” This, of course, is that day that we have to decide what we’re going to “give up” for the forty days between now and Easter.[1]

In the Episcopal liturgy for Ash Wednesday, we are invited to “the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” For some reason, out of all those admirable activities, self-denial gets all the attention. The usual suggestion one hears these days is to do something positive, rather than focusing on something negative. Don’t worry about giving something up, just pray more, for example. That is, of course, a fine suggestion as far as it goes, but in fact we are called to do both: pray more and deny ourselves.

Sadly, all too often what we have is self-improvement projects masquerading as Lenten disciplines: “if I give up chocolate, perhaps I’ll lose ten pounds before my daughter’s wedding,” or “if I give up wine for six weeks like my doctor says my liver will be good as new.” That seems to miss the point also. We need something that is truly sacrificial and that benefits someone other than ourselves. Last year I flunked that test. I gave up fast food. I had a very precise definition of fast food: food served by any establishment that either has a drive-up window or also sells gasoline. This exercise certainly met the self-examination criteria, as my car seemed at times to want to turn itself into Chick-Fil-A. But it didn’t really seem to check any of the other boxes, and certainly didn’t qualify as benefiting someone else.

So here’s my resolution this year: I am going to skip one meal every day, and donate the money to a different worthy cause. The amount of money I’ll be donating daily is $6.86. That happens to be the cost of a No. 1 meal at Whataburger, including fries, drink, and sales tax. I realize that this contradict my experience last year that giving up fast food is not an appropriate sacrifice. All I can tell you is that if you look at the debit card record of a freshman living in a college dormitory, you know different.[2] Plus, by including the sales tax, I actually manage to go the Pharisees one step farther, and render unto God something that is Caesar’s.

Today’s recipient is Operation Noah, a London organization led by my friend Nicky Bull working towards a Christian response to the climate crisis. Why a climate change organization? Take a look at Isaiah Chapter 58, the Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday: “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will … satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Building a watered garden, with waters that never fail, is precisely the work that Operation Noah and folks like them are up to. I invite you to join them.

What Isaiah tells us is so simple as to be astonishing, almost hiding in plain sight: acting out of something other than pure self interest can not only change the type of people we are, it can actually restore creation itself. John Calvin’s view of equity, which after all is what this space is supposed to be about, was that it was a personal quality, a sort of “mildness,” that recognizes the importance of individual rights but also the importance of moderating them sometimes in pursuit of a higher good. That seems to me a very important idea for our times, and one not limited to jurisprudence (although Calvin, we should remember, was a lawyer). How we use our money, how we relate to the environment, how we make decisions on things like college admissions – all of these things could be informed by something like an ethic of mildness, or of humility. What sort of world would we live in if we did that? We certainly have some ruins to rebuild, and some gardens to rehydrate. For forty days, it’s worth a try.

[1] The math only works because Sundays, traditionally, don’t count as part of Lent, the theory being that Sundays are little Easters. Whatever the theological support for such an idea, and I’m sure it’s there, in the self-denial game it strikes me as a bit of special pleading, sort of like giving up dessert but then ordering Belgian Waffles with strawberries, whipped cream, and powdered sugar for dinner and saying “but I’ve always liked having breakfast in the evening.”

[2] For non-Texans, think Five Guys. I don’t know what the equivalent student lifesaver restaurant would be in the UK: Pizza Express perhaps.

Reason and Virtue: Medieval Concepts for Modern Times

Earlier this week we celebrated the feast day of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who was only: the foremost Roman Catholic theologian; the author of Summa Theologiae, his lifelong attempt to summarize all of Christian theology; by any (even secular) account, one of the ten most important philosophers in the Western tradition; the person who, as much as anyone, reintroduced Aristotle to the West after the Dark Ages; and the patron saint of universities and students.

Among many other things, Aquinas included in the Summa a lengthy disquisition on jurisprudence and legal theory (commonly referred to today as Aquinas’s “Treatise on Laws”) that attempted to explain the relationships among the mind and reasoning of God, which we might call “divine Wisdom;” fundamental principles of “natural law” that apply everywhere always, and are somehow implanted in all humans; and human law, which, according to Aquinas, should be human – that is, legislative – attempts to create fact and locale specific implementations of natural law, to promote the common good of a particular community. These human laws would of course vary; here in South Texas, we don’t need laws telling homeowners to shovel their sidewalks after a snowstorm. But such laws must both find their basis in both divine Wisdom and human reason, and they must carry out the common good. Human laws that fail those tests, according to Aquinas, are no laws at all.

As important as Aquinas saw the law to be, however, he also saw its limits. So, he built (at least) two important qualifications into his views on law. First is the concept of equity. Aquinas recognized that no law would be perfect, because no general law could justly decide every specific case. Therefore, Aquinas postulated the principle of “epikeia,” or equity, which flows from “the dictates of justice and the common good” rather than the strict imposition of human law. He borrowed the concept, and the term, from Aristotle, although both the Romans and the Hebrews had similar ideas. Equity is, in plain terms, an attempt to avoid using the technical reading of the law to avoid unjust or illogical results. The idea was to elevate the concept of the common good, so that the law neither approved actions technically legal that impaired the common good, nor condemned technically illegal ones that harmed no one.

Second, Aquinas in a separate part of the Summa endorsed a virtue-based view of human flourishing, because, he said, without the proper personal ethics, especially the “cardinal” virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and temperance, and the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, one would lack the necessary reason to make proper decisions about the law and its requirements. Both of those concepts come from Aquinas’s fundamental view that all things have purposes, towards which they are drawn. Laws have purposes and are valid only to the extent that they fulfill those purposes. And human lives have purposes, which should align to God’s purposes for humanity.

Two news topics this week make us wish for a new Aquinas. The first is the impeachment story. The president’s defenders claim, among other things, that he can’t be impeached, because the articles of impeachment don’t allege a crime. Well, perhaps. The house articles do set out the case that the president violated the Impoundment Control Act, which says that, absent special circumstances, the President has to spend the funds authorized by Congress in the budget, and only for specific reasons. Not surprisingly, withholding funds in order to induce a foreign investigation of a political rival is not among the special circumstances. Nevertheless, the argument is that while the President may have violated the Impoundment Control Act, that does not constitute a crime; there are only civil remedies for violation of the Act.

The Constitution authorized impeachment for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Let’s not concern ourselves with asking whether withholding military aid from a regional opponent of an enemy superpower, in order to gain a political advantage, is treasonous. And let’s not ask whether promising financial assistance, and a face to pace meeting in the White House, to a foreign official in exchange for detective services is bribery. Let’s limit ourselves to asking whether violation of the Impoundment Control Act is a “high Crime or Misdemeanor.” Here’s where Aquinas would be so helpful. He tells us that a law must be reasonable; that it has to be designed to achieve its purpose; and that its purpose has to serve the common good. Let’s look at the President’s conduct in that light. Is it reasonable to expect that the President shouldn’t  withhold aid from our allies, thus giving succor to our enemies, to promote his reelection chances? Check. Would removing a president who behaves like that promote the dignity of the Presidency and the efficient operation of government? Check. And which more serves the common good: sending our allies the aid that Congress approved, or withholding it to find out how long they can stand up to its (and our) great rival to the north and east?

The other great story this week is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, commemorated across the world, especially at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, attended by Presidents Putin and Macron, Vice-President Pence, Prince Charles, Speaker Pelosi, and a host of others. (But not the American president; he was in Davos insulting teenage girls.) Everyone who did attend, and for that matter the American president, in a written statement, vowed never to let anything like the Holocaust happen again. But how do we do that? By enacting laws? In fact, the evidence indicates that Hitler had a sophisticated, if devious, legal strategy to impair human rights and to turn Germany from democracy to dictatorship. The only protection we have is, in fact, virtue. The question societies must ultimately answer when they choose their leaders is not, what kinds of programs might they have or laws might they enact, but what kind of people are we? Do our leaders reflect our own aspirations for ourselves? And, once again, Aquinas beats us to the post. While humans do have reason, and that reason will if used properly lead to right and just decisions, reason can’t be used properly by a person that lacks the qualities (which we call virtues) necessary to distinguish right from wrong. We might think of this as the difference between wisdom and cleverness. Thus, virtue answers one of philosophy’s knottiest problems: how can we say that each of us is obligated to follow his or her conscience, if moral truths are absolute and nonnegotiable? Because, he says, it is the virtues that allow our consciences to make correct conclusions. Thus, the culpability, when we judge wrongly, is not so much in the wrong judgment itself, but in failing to build the character necessary to make right judgments.

Which is why the character of the people whom we elect matters. Aquinas would find the modern distinction between private and public lives phony at best, if not outright unintelligible. We build the capacity for prudence and justice in large things by practicing prudence and justice in small ones. We learn to love humanity by loving individual humans. We tell the truth under oath because we always tell the truth. And those virtues operate together, not independently of each other. Thus, while lying is always wrong, lying to injure someone is more contemptible that a white lie done out of charity. Moreover, it’s not enough to be a virtue specialist – all justice, no mercy, or so forth. We can see why this is so. A soldier that is all prudence and no courage is cowardly. One that is all courage and no prudence is foolhardy. The failure of virtue explains a lot about history. One reason for the Holocaust was the failure in courage of millions of ordinary Germans. They may not have positively wished the Jews exterminated, but they lacked and the prudence to see what Hitler was really up to, and then the fortitude to stand up and protest when it became clear. (Note to my German friends: we Americans can’t claim to have done much better, as Native Americans and descendants of slaves would attest. This is a human, not a national, problem.)

Aquinas doesn’t enjoy the respect he once did. He seems too philosophical for many Christians; he thought he could prove the existence of God through pure reason, which infuriated the sola fides contingent,  notably Luther, who thought that Aquinas was an Aristotelian wolf in monastic sheep’s garb, a sort of semi-Pelagian (even though Aquinas insisted that certain virtues, notably charity, were dependent on grace). And he’s too religious for many philosophers; the Enlightenment didn’t care either for his insistence on placing God, not humans, at the pinnacle of existence, or that human reason, while noble, was imperfect – in other words, that he wasn’t more Pelagian.

On the other hand, a good dose of Thomism, recognizing both the beauty and the limitations of human capacity, may be just what we need. This morning, on BBC’s Daily Service, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells talked about how Christians find themselves in the role of actors at the end of a five act play, knowing what has come before, and knowing what the end is, but not having the script of how we get to the end and exactly what our own lines are. (Dr. Wells sets this out in his book Improvisation, which is well worth a look.)[1] It seems to me that if we’re in the dark about what we ought to do, thinking about how to honor the spirit of the law, rather than the letter, and then working on the virtues we need to do that would be a good place to start.

[1] N. T. Wright makes similar, although not exactly the same, claims in his After You Believe.

It Was the Best of Times…

December 31 / Eve of Holy Name Day

The end of the year is a time for making lists, more so the end of a decade. So, here’s a list of rules for writers, one of which I have already violated:[1]

  1. Never under any circumstances quote Nietzsche about anything that fails to kill you making you stronger;
  2. Be very sparing in your use of first person singular pronouns, because (i) your reader isn’t nearly as interested in you as you are yourself, and (ii) when you are writing an opinion piece, you don’t really need to say that something is “my opinion.”
  3. Writing humorous pieces is ok, but only if you are, in fact, funny. Not being a funny person is not a character flaw but trying to be funny when you’re not may be, albeit a minor one.
  4. When you finish a piece, go back and cut out your favorite sentence; it’s probably too clever by half.

And, for the rule already violated in this piece:

  1. Never under any circumstances quote or play off of the most famous line from any A-list work of literature: “To be or not to be…vegan” gets a thumbs down, as does “truth is beauty, beauty truth, and that is all you need to know (except for where you parked your car last night).” The only exception to this rule applies solely to Nobel Prize winners: so, The Sound and the Fury is an allowable title, as is For Whom the Bell Tolls (because I don’t suppose we can blame Hemingway for it becoming a complete cliché), but Horseman Pass By awaits Larry McMurtry’s laureateship.

Of course, I’ve already violated Rule # 5. I have three defenses to the charge: (1) this blog is nominally about equity, the premise of which is that rules occasionally need to be broken; (2) the quote was from a Dickens book other than A Christmas Carol, which at this time of the year qualifies as a mitigating factor, and (3) it seems like a shorthand way to summarize my reaction to an editorial by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times, “This has Been the Best Year Ever.”

Mr. Kristoff starts out this way:

If you’re depressed by the state of the world, let me toss out an idea: In the long arc of human history, 2019 has been the best year ever.

The bad things that you fret about are true. But it’s also true that since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.

Knowing that his headline is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, Mr. Kristoff beats the reader to the punch:

But … but … but President Trump! But climate change! War in Yemen! Starvation in Venezuela! Risk of nuclear war with North Korea. …

And then:

You may feel uncomfortable reading this. It can seem tasteless, misleading or counterproductive to hail progress when there is still so much wrong with the world. I get that. In addition, the numbers are subject to debate and the 2019 figures are based on extrapolation. But I worry that deep pessimism about the state of the world is paralyzing rather than empowering; excessive pessimism can leave people feeling not just hopeless but also helpless.

The piece is well worth reading closely, if for no other reason than that it makes an essentially quantitative argument for the notion that the quality of life is better than ever. Certainly numbers can deceive. Ask Dallas Cowboy fans. America’s Team outscored its opponents by 113 points in their 16-game season (for the math-impaired among us, that would be a touchdown a game, with one two-point conversion thrown in), and yet somehow managed to lose half of those games and miss the playoffs. If rankings were determined by comparative scores, or even highlight reels, Cowboy fans would be in front of their televisions this weekend, rather than taking down the Christmas decorations and cleaning out the refrigerator.

Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to look at the state of the world as Oxford economist Max Roser, quoted by Mr. Kristoff, summarizes it: “We are some of the first people in history who have found ways to make progress against these problems. … We have changed the world. How awesome is it to be alive at a time like this? … Three things are true at the same time. The world is much better, the world is awful, the world can be much better.” In other words, this is neither the best of times (which are in fact to come) nor the worst (evil having already done its worst, and failed). That seems pretty much spot-on.

Mr. Roser also captures the truly interesting thing to me about Mr. Kristoff’s article: it assumes that there really is such a thing as progress, as things being better for everyone, and that history can be guided in that direction. The concept that history is progressive is shared by Christianity and by Enlightenment philosophy, which are so much at odds in some many other ways. Christians think the teleological nature of history to be a matter of divine providence, where the Enlightenment thought that human capabilities alone could pull it off. But both thought the achievement of true, universal human flourishing was not only possible but inevitable (even if they had profoundly different view of what constituted flourishing.) More importantly, both assume that Life with a capital L has a purpose, and that individual lives gain their purpose from advancing the cause.

Sadly, such views are not without controversy today. Many people, and powerful ones at that, see life as a zero-sum affair, with everyone’s win being someone else’s loss. The only purpose in life is individual self-realization, the function of government is to prevent interference with individual freedom, but not more, and collective advancement is at most a byproduct of individual accomplishment. Social justice, the thought goes, is a fiction imposed by the weak as a means of restricting the rights of the powerful. Google “F. A. Hayek” (Margaret Thatcher’s favorite philosopher, and Ronald Reagan’s) and you’ll get the idea.

This is a profoundly pagan view of reality. On the other hand, Mr. Kristoff in fact casts a vision strikingly similar to that from today’s reading from the Book of Isaiah (Chapter 65):

I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

The things that Mr. Kristoff cites as making 2019 the best year ever are the same things that Isaiah forecast as the manifestation of God’s kingdom: no more infant death, or early death from disease; no more homelessness; no more working only to enrich others. But it also includes things – such as reconciliation between ancient enemies – at which we are not doing very well, and may actually be doing worse than a generation previous. (See “Cold War, End of”).  While we may not be at the “end of history,” in Francis Fukuyama’s unfortunate phrase, it helps to be reminded that there is reason to hope that history will have a happy ending, and that we are moving, even if only stumbling, towards it.

Happy New Year.

[1] Hint: take another look at the title.

Ye Shall Know the Truth…

Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle

The “news” this week is, of course, dominated by the impeachment of the President, and his response to the Speaker of the House, the latter reminiscent of something that might have been in Beetlejuice Goes to Washington, if Pee Wee Herman played the title role. But the impeachment itself was certainly not “breaking news”, whatever the networks claim, because it has been predicted for months. And neither the impeachment nor the President’s reaction were news at all in Thoreau’s sense. He, we recall, said that a wagon running into a cow is news — that is, “new” —  only the first time it happens, the second time being merely a different wagon and a different cow.

If anything, the news this week was the editorial in Christianity Today magazine bearing the headline “Trump Should Be Removed from Office,” and, even more interestingly, the reaction to the piece. The editorial speaks for itself and is well worth a read. As for the reaction: one would have thought that the response to an editorial run by an evangelical magazine (founded by Billy Graham) finding a lying, philandering, bigoted narcissist unfit for office would have been “duh!” Instead, the cry has, for the most part, been “Bravo!” And — here’s the really interesting thing — those kudos have come from people that, one suspects, do not have a Christianity Today subscription on auto-renew (Mia Farrow, Sandra Bernhard, Robert Reich) while condemnations have come from people like Franklin Graham (Billy’s son) and the unfortunately never-at-a-loss for words Laura Ingraham, who typically line up solidly with the evangelicals. But perhaps not even this is surprising. After all it was the gentiles who “got” Jesus first. Just as the Republican Party, once the party of Lincoln, is now the party of Trump, there are pharisees in every generation; the only question is where to find them.

But enough of that. This is the week to think about real News, the Good News. Christianity is a religion of paradoxes. Christians worship a God that is totally transcendent, not a creature in any sense of the word, and yet walked among us fully enfleshed. (When leading adolescent youth groups my go-to way (which never failed) of reviving interest in a distracted group was to remind them that Jesus being fully human meant that he farted.) Christians (and Jews) believe that God is both perfectly just and perfectly merciful. Christians also believe that Jesus is with us everywhere, all the time, although we never manage to actually see him. These paradoxes inhere in the faith and will be sorted out only in the fullness of time.

But there is a paradox about the Christmas season that is wholly man-made. We believe that, as Linus puts it, the “true meaning of Christmas” lies in the fact that the Messiah has been born, and his coming makes us free. Paul writes in Galatians an ideal that is shot right through the New Testament: “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Why is it, then that the season that celebrates his birth is the one time of the year when we are least free, when obligations most weigh upon us, when our daytimer is fullest, when our trashcans are full and our bank accounts are empty? Starting, it seems, right after the Fourth of July, we get commercials telling us that the real spirit of Christmas lies in buying our spouse / partner a luxury sport utility vehicle (with, in many cases, one thrown in for ourselves). The implicit message behind these commercials, of course, is that this is how you show someone you love them, but the message behind the message is that you bloody well get to work, loser, taking a second job if necessary, so that you can afford the thing.

Well, respectfully Mr. Lexus, Señor Cadillac, and Herr Benz, as that late-developing Noelophile E. Scrooge said, you keep Christmas in your way, and I’ll keep it in mine. If you actually believed in the truth of the Christmas story, you would feel free to take the box of chocolates or bottle of wine that you have for your uncle Waldo, who you never liked anyway, and give it to the homeless guy on the corner; or better yet to invite the homeless guy to Christmas dinner and have him sit at the table right next to Uncle Waldo; to skip the neighbor’s Christmas party, or go and stay too late, as suits your fancy; to throw out the fruit cake Aunt Gladys sent you because you hate fruit cake and not even your Labrador Retriever will eat it, or to eat the whole thing at one sitting because you love it, in either case without a smidgeon of guilt; to make a big stack of books about the Keto diet, positive thinking, meditation for pagans, anything with the words “wealth,”[1] “simplify,” “keto,” or “secret”[2] in the title, and anything by Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Covey, Eckhert Tolle, or Tim Ferris, put them all in the fireplace, set fire to it, and (preferably in your underwear) watch The Princess Bride, or any version of A Christmas Carol (other than the current one, which involves Scrooge dropping f-bombs and making indecent proposals to Mrs. Cratchit); to lift a glass to Saint Thomas, who had precisely the reaction (“yeah, sure you saw Him”) that we all would have had; to go to church on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, even if your family thinks you’re becoming a bit of a fanatic; or buy yourself a Prius rather than a Lexus, and then leave it in the garage and fly across the country trailing clouds of carbon exhaust in your wake, for no good reason at all except to tell your loved ones you love them face to face, rather than via FaceTime. Responsibility, like heaven, can wait a few days, as can the Prius. The child in the manger will be patiently waiting also.

That is the true meaning of Christmas, and that will truly set you free. Merry Christmas.

[[1] Including The Wealth of Nations; you’ve had it for thirty years and not read it, and you can get it on Kindle for free. Plus, the real reason you’ve kept it on the shelf is to impress visitors to your house. It doesn’t.

[2] Non-fiction only, lest we lose The Secret Agent, The Secret Garden, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Do What Comes Naturally

Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra

Amid the clamor of the impeachment hearings and the British general election (essentially a second referendum on Brexit) is there any hope to be found, anywhere, in this Advent season? Well, here’s one. Last month, believe it or not, both Houses of Congress unanimously passed a substantive bill, and the President signed it. What could possibly have caused this political miracle: Puppy love.

The “Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act” made it a federal crime to subject animals to various sorts of torture and, more importantly, to make and distribute videos of such behavior. Apparently, (I have no personal knowledge of this), there is a particularly sick corner of the Internet dedicated to what are commonly called “crush videos,” which tells you all you need to know about them. Even more sickeningly, apparently people actually watch these things. Such behavior is illegal in all fifty states, but the World Wide Web being world-wide, individual states sometimes had jurisdictional problems in prosecuting the distributors. Hence the need for a federal crime.

The story caught my eye, not simply because it’s astonishing that the Republicans and Democrats could agree unanimously on anything, but because it concerns my favorite example of natural law. We have talked in these pages before about the core concept of natural law, that some legal concepts are inherently true, in the same way that the laws of gravity or geometry are true. When I talk or write about natural law, the example I return to is torturing puppies. It is wrong to torture puppies, and no law can make it right. That proposition invariably elicits unanimous agreement from the audience.

It’s a bit more complicate than that, however. This concept of natural law, of course, involves for a Christian the question of the nature of God. As the creator of all things, God is the source of natural law, even if, as Aquinas believed, natural law principles could be known by everyone. Which raises the moral chicken and egg problem that Plato described in the “Euthyphro” dialogue: Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? The German polymath Gottfried Leibniz put it in more Christian terms: “is something good and just because God wills it or does God will it because it is good and just”? Is torturing puppies bad because God says so, or does God say so because it’s bad. The dilemmas is this: If God wills something because it is good, then there are moral rules that do not depend on God, but if something is good because God says so, then God could say differently and, for instance, make torturing puppies good rather than evil. That dilemma has troubled and continues to trouble many people, but unnecessarily so. Aquinas gave the best answer: because God is goodness itself (not merely good) it’s a logical impossibility to say that God either is bound by external rules of goodness or could choose not to be good. It’s like asking what is north of the North Pole, or whether a triangle can have four sides.

It seems rather odd to think that we even need a law outlawing animal crush videos, that market forces, if nothing else, would put sickness out of business. Apparently not. And while it may be refreshing to have an instance of all our politicians aligning themselves with fundamental morality, too often we have the opposite example: think about Attorney General Barr (who has the jowls of Santa Claus but not the disposition) making speeches about religious liberty and morality while his Justice Department harasses mothers and children (the true protected classes in Mosaic law).

Today is the feast of St. Nicholas, who was an actual person, the 4th Century Bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey. According to James Kiefer, the legend of St. Nicholas the anonymous gift giver came from this story: A man with three unmarried daughters, lacks the money to provide them with suitable dowries. This meant that they could not marry, and were likely to end up as prostitutes. Nicholas walked by the man’s house on three successive nights, and each time threw a bag of gold in through a window (or, when the story came to be told in colder climates, down the chimney). Thus, the daughters were saved from a life of shame, and all got married and lived happily ever after. No need for lectures about personal responsibility, or prosecution for immoral behavior, or for that matter even grand poor relief social programs. In this season of Advent, we should give thanks for the rare occasion when our government chooses the higher way, and repent for the times when it, and we, do not.


Can the Law Be Beautiful?

Our Sunday School class is working its way through Tom Wright’s Simply Christian. The first part of the book talks about four things — echoes of a voice, Wright calls them — that hint at the reality of God. Those things are justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty.

The question that springs to mind for me  is whether these are four things, or different aspects of the same thing. Can justice be beautiful? As it turns out, perhaps so. Aquinas says that there are three conditions to beauty: integrity, proportion, and clarity (or brightness). Can we talk about a law, or the law, in those terms?

Can we say that a law has integrity? “Integrity” comes from the Latin word for “intact.” We can certainly ask whether a particular law is consistent with itself, and with higher principles? Does its enactment, in other words, leave the Law, the collection of laws, more or less intact? Think about the Declaration 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.” The Declaration announces that it intends to comport with principles so basic that they need no proof and cannot be argued.  And then, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Any law that does not comport with those principles must be changed, because it is, Aquinas would say, no law at all. And any government that subverts them deserves to go also.

How about proportion? In the West, we would say today that proportionality is foundational to law. There was a proportionality clause in Magna Carta (Clause 20), and in the United States we all are familiar with the condemnation of cruel and unusual punishment in the 8th Amendment. (This seems to be a principle that for much of Western history was honored more in the breach than the observance; England had a whole host of capital crimes well into the 19th Century.) If we were to make the Law proportional to the risks we face, we would undoubtedly focus more on climate change and less on petty drug offenses. (I recall the columnist George Will saying that if we wanted to allow one thing that most jeopardizes health and safety, it should be not supersized soft drinks or chewing tobacco but left turns — right in the UK.)

And, last but not least, clarity? A law should be nothing if not clear. Punishing someone under an incomprehensible law is barbaric. The law should be both clear in itself, and clear in relation to its purpose. The failure to achieve the latter goal explains much of the current divisiveness in our political discourse, as it relates to legislative activity. Whether it be more severe immigration laws, or a change in our treatment of migrants and refugees, or a tightening of bankruptcy law, or the entry into and subsequent withdrawal from international accords on climate change or nuclear development in Iran or many other things, such debate is largely fruitless unless we can answer this question: what is the problem this law, or treaty, or accord is trying to solve? Such problems are always complex, and so the answers must be. “Climate change” or “controlling our borders” simply won’t do. But only after we answer the clarity question can we get to the other to: does the law have integrity, by dealing with the real problem and not some T-shirt / Twitter catchphrase reference to it, and is it proportional, by being a measured response to the problem? Large numbers of undocumented aliens arriving at the southern border is clearly a problem, but separating parents from children and encaging the latter have neither integrity nor proportion in their favor.

One thing is missing, however, not in what make a law beautiful but in how we might make a beautiful law. That thing is humility. Aquinas rated humility just behind charity and justice on the list of virtues, because he saw them as virtues in themselves, whereas humility was the virtue that oriented us to the proper rather than selfish goals. What would humility in the law be? It would be a recognition that problems are complex and that they don’t always have legal solutions. As terrifying as climate change may be, we in the developed world need to remember that the residents of the developing world may have a different view of how to solve it, because economic development requires increased energy consumption. The second thing to remember is that laws can only take us so far. If I am determined to wash all my clothes in hot water, or eat beef twice a day, and I have the money to do it, no law will stop me. We would do well to remember Dr. Johnson’s admonition: “How small, of all that human hearts endure / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” The solution to climate change and refugee crises ultimately will require a change in heart. When we have more beautiful hearts, beautiful laws will follow.



From the Box Seats, Darkly (Knowledge Part 3)

It is mid-July 2016. You are Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs. You took the job after a similar position with the Boston Red Sox, who, under your leadership, broke an 86-year championship drought known as “The Curse of the Bambino.”[1] Now you have been hired to break an even longer drought, the 108-year old “Curse of the Billy Goat.”[2]

Your Cubs are the best team in baseball, even though it is also the youngest. You have the best record in baseball, and your entire infield started in the All-Star game for the National League. But the team is not perfect. In particular, your “closer”[3] Hector Rondon and setup man[4] Pedro Strop are B+ performers: good but not great. You know that you have the opportunity to trade for Aroldis Chapman, who can throw a baseball harder[5] than any human being alive. However, Chapman will cost you. The Yankees, Chapman’s current team, insist on getting in return Gleyber Torres, the Cubs’ number-one future prospect and perhaps the top prospect in all of baseball. (Torres is currently in the Cubs’ minor league system, and not counted on to contribute to the major league club this year.)

Do you make the deal for Chapman? Let us crystalize the dilemma. First, let’s assume some sort of Faustian bargain made by Epstein: acquiring Chapman guarantees a World Series championship.[6] Most Cub fans would have said “absolutely, make the deal,” and, as we know, Epstein did, and the Cubs did win. But let’s complicate the question a bit. First, assume you also know that you will only have Chapman for the remainder of this season, because he will re-sign with the Yankees. You also know that Torres will be turn out to be every bit as good as advertised, starting in 2018. How does the deal look now? Let’s suppose further than you know (as Epstein could not have in 2016) that Addison Russell, the Cubs’ shortstop who plays the same position as Torres (thus blocking his path to the majors), will fail to live up to his potential and by 2019 will have so many serious personal problems that you’re ready to give him away. Still so sure about making the trade? Then let’s tighten the vise a bit more. It’s revealed to you that Javier Baez, another middle infielder every bit as dynamic as Torres, will turn out to be a keeper, but then in early September 2019, when the Cubs are in a desperate pennant race with the Cardinals and Brewers (their two most hated rivals) will break his hand and miss the rest of the year, starting a downslide that leaves the Cubs out of the playoffs, never having won another championship. Reaching for a second does of Prilosec?

Continue reading “From the Box Seats, Darkly (Knowledge Part 3)”

Hermeneutics Part 2

How do we know what we know?

Last week I was in the waiting room of my cardiologist’s office, for my annual checkup. Sitting across from me was an elderly (i.e. my age) gentleman, in shorts and trainers, listening to some sort of radio or tv show on his phone, without earbuds. Immediately, I sorted him out: he’s here for a stress test, because of worrying symptoms brought on, no doubt, by too many years of high fat, low exercise living. Which turned out to be untrue. He was there for an exercise class, organized by the clinic. Not two minutes after I noticed him, here came the trainer to take him and five or six others back for their morning workout.

What might he have been thinking about me? Most likely, the answer is, he wasn’t, having better things to do. But if he were, was he thinking of me as a gracefully aging ex-marathoner, with no apparent reason to be at a cardiologist? Even less likely, given that absolutely nothing about my physical presence suggests “long-distance runner.” If he were paying attention, he probably sized me up pretty much the same way I did him.

Last time in this spot we considered the philosophy of hermeneutics, especially in relation to other people. The examples I gave came out of my travel to Scotland, which I think of as sort of a second (or third) home but which would regard me as an occasional visitor. The question was how we form our opinions of others. Do  we grant to others a hermeneutic of generosity, or of suspicion? Do we impute good qualities to them, or not so good? Are they innocent until proven guilty, so to speak, or the reverse?

This applies not only to strangers, but to people we encounter every day, and even to ourselves. I still think of myself as a long-distance runner, even though Barack Obama had been president scarcely a month when I ran my last marathon, and I never was any good in the first place. (Fastest slow guy was probably the best you could say about me.) No stranger would look at me and be reminded of Pheidippides (except perhaps for the collapsing in exhaustion and dying part.) And it happens not only when we assess people but when we talk to them. Misunderstandings happen more often that we realize because we assume that each of us understands what the other is trying to say, rather than actually listening to them. So we respond to what we thought we were going to hear, rather than what was actually said. I was on a business call earlier this week with someone that in a fairly bullying manner shouted that he absolutely would not tolerate actions that no one else on the call had even hinted as possible. (That was not me, by the way, although it certainly could have been.) It took the rest of the 45-minute call to claw back to some sort of productive conversation.

He responded to something that was not said (and was not going to be said.) In other words, his suspicion of what the others might be up to prevented him from hearing what was actually said. We could have had a phone call that actually accomplished something had he come in assuming that everyone else spoke in good faith rather than devious self interest.

Which, sad to say, brings us to the perennial breaking news topic: America’s President (who shall not be named.) One way to understand the political firestorm surrounding the call with the Ukranian president is hermeneutically. The President wants all of us to interpret his actions generously. It was a “perfect,” a “beautiful” call. It was the kind of call that world leaders have all the time. It had nothing to do with politics. On the other hand, the President wants us to regard the unnamed whistleblower, the House of Representatives, and the media with some combination of suspicion and disdain. Their motivations are purely political. It’s all part of the swamp, the deep state out to get him. Which raises two questions. First, at what point does he forfeit the right to the benefit of the doubt? Christians, in their dealings with their neighbors, say “never.” But here is a case where, clearly, the government does not and cannot operate on purely Christian principles. While God may be infinitely forgiving, our system of checks and balances cannot be. At some point, enough is enough. The acceleration of impeachment proceedings is not simply outrage over this incident, outrageous though it clearly is, but a sense that we increasingly know beyond a reasonable doubt who this President is.

The second question gives us all pause. If we insist on insisting on always getting the benefit of the doubt, without extending that courtesy to others, look to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the company we keep. Christians have been given our role model, one of humility and self-sacrifice. The President gives us another one. There is a story about Voltaire catching some pompous nobleman admiring himself with some faux award pinned to his chest, and saying “If I catch you doing that again, I shall be forced to tell you the names of other winners.” When we find ourselves affording the benefit of the doubt only to ourselves, we should think about the company we keep.