"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Work In Progress

This is incomplete. It's a meditation, nearly a sermon, on the lectionary readings for last Sunday. I had in mind something more along the lines of one of Kierkegaard's "Edifying Discourses," and I may come back and hammer it into that shape eventually (in fact, I'm sure I will; already I can see how to alter the tone here. Now if I just have time to do it....). So for now, think of it as a Work in Progress:

Genesis 18:20-32

18:20 Then the LORD said, "How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!
18:21 I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know."
18:22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.
18:23 Then Abraham came near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
18:24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?
18:25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"
18:26 And the LORD said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake."
18:27 Abraham answered, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.
18:28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?" And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there."
18:29 Again he spoke to him, "Suppose forty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of forty I will not do it."
18:30 Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there." He answered, "I will not do it, if I find thirty there."
18:31 He said, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it."
18:32 Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it."
Luke 11:1-13

11:1 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples."
11:2 He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.
11:3 Give us each day our daily bread.
11:4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial."
11:5 And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;
11:6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.'
11:7 And he answers from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.'
11:8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
11:9 "So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.
11:10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
11:11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?
11:12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?
11:13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
Utilitarianism, we call it. The philosophy of providing the greatest good for the greatest number. It is our secular moral code, the way we have organized our economy, our society, our culture, our world. Majority rule: and what is good for the majority, is the best society can provide, the ideal organization of groups and interests to maintain a balance where all are well served. It’s a new idea in the history of Western thought, one developed in the 19th century, in Britain. It’s an old idea; it has its roots in Aristotle’s “Ethics,” the first book in Western culture to give us an idea of how to live to maximize our happiness; but it’s really an idea as old as social order itself. So long as some portion of society has sufficient control, it always sets the terms for who is included in the greatest number, and what the greatest good is. And most of the people who are excluded from that consensus are too busy getting through the day to worry about why they share so little of this “greatest good” they may only hear about, if at all.

The flip side of utilitarianism would seem to be another great philosophy out of the 19th century, and also out of Britain: Marxism. A social order and economy which levels downward and denies the tools of power to any one group, which looks for a utopia when individual ownership has vanished and is forgotten because all share equally in what is needed by all. But that isn’t really the opposite of utilitarianism, because Marxism is fundamentally an economic doctrine, and utilitarianism aims at providing guiding moral principles we can all agree are valid and valuable. Marxism functions by coercion until the state withers away, coercion no longer needed. Utilitarianism functions by appealing to self-interest, by assuring security in what you possess because the greatest good for the greatest number produces a state as near perfection as it is possible to obtain, and if it means there are inevitably losers and winners, then there are fewer of the former than there are of the latter, and so the society as a whole reaches a perfect equilibrium almost impossible to upset.

And then along comes God, the power from which there is no appeal, the power perfect in itself and wholly outside the system of greatest good for the greatest number, and God has the power to sweep all our pretensions and presumptions and prevarications away. God doesn’t sit on the side of the greatest number, or of the greatest good, but with the poor and the neglected and the outcast. For God, justice is the greatest good, and when justice is denied, God upsets the game board and starts the game over again. But then along comes Abraham, to challenge both God and society, by pointing out that justice means the greatest good for the smallest number.

The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, by the way, was not sexual, it was social. The sin of these two cities was in abusing travelers, beating guests, throwing them out of the town after attacking them. It is no coincidence this story comes just after Abraham has been a model of hospitality at the oaks of Mamre. When the travelers stop at his tent, Abraham rushes out and invites them to stay; he gives orders to his wife and the servants to prepare the meal, he entertains his guest while it is prepared, and then he serves it to them himself. He is the very model of a Middle Eastern host. Immediately after this meal and the blessing on Sarah, God says he’s heard bad things about Sodom and Gomorrah, and must go see if it is true. He doesn’t mention the sin we all associate with the city’s name; God goes, again, as a traveler, to see if it is true that hospitality is wanting in the two cities of the plain. If it is, then God will bring justice. But, asks Abraham, is collective punishment justice? Are the righteous to be punished with the guilty? If the city if guilty of sin, do the sinners have so much power over the innocent?

His argument is considered a model of bargaining in the bazaar, but it’s not the argument that’s interesting, it’s the basis of the argument. Abraham argues in a classic reductio manner: if 50 are found righteous, can the city be saved? And if 50 is enough, why not 45? Why not 40? Why not, finally, 10? Is it truly quantity that counts, or quality?

Under utilitarianism, of course, it is only quantity that counts; quality is lagniappe, a little something extra, the bonus for those left in the greatest number when all the sorting is sorted out. Indeed, quality is the cream that rises to the top of the society, to those for whom the society exists, those who have all the best and deserve it because, after all, they are the best. Or so the reasoning usually goes. Quality is for those who deserve it, and that is usually the least number of all; but then, there is only so much quality to go around, and only so many people who can appreciate it. Greatest good for the greatest number never means an equal distribution to all in the majority. It simply means the majority is better off then the minority, and in both groups there are then gradations of good, spread unequally between the largest number in either group, and the smallest number. The latter, of course, get the cream that is available. There is, after all, only so much cream available from any gallon of fresh cow’s milk.

Abraham slyly turns that upside down. It is the lack of hospitality that has brought doom near the gates of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is the failure to provide for the least among us all: the traveler far from home, far from familiar protections, relying solely on the kindness of strangers. If the hosts are not kind, the hosts themselves are damned. Travelers and strangers are always the least and lowest among us, we always owe them our most gracious hospitality. But if that isn’t shown, is the entire household to be punished? If the greatest good for the greatest number is not just, is the greatest punishment for the greatest number a way to restore justice? Why wouldn’t it be?

The answer is obvious, of course. As Abraham asks, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Surely not, because that means we would be punished, too! That would not be justice! Justice must be discriminating. But utilitarianism tells us precisely that justice cannot be discriminating! Society must be arranged so as to provide the greatest good for the greatest number, and personal considerations do not enter into the equation. Indeed, they cannot, because then society would not objectively provide the greatest good for the greatest number, but would subjectively serve those in power, and punish others for failing to have power. The great appeal of utilitarianism is its arbitrariness, its objectivity, its refusal to play favorites. That is what makes the utilitarian system fair. It does not select who is rewarded; it does not select who is deprived. It deals justly because it deals blindly, without fear or favor. Surely that is justice. Surely justice must be blind.

But a blind bull in a china shop is not a metaphor for justice; it is simply a model for thoughtless destruction.

Abraham has just been the model of hospitality, the very opposite of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. He has just fed the three travelers at the oaks of Mamre, has just been their servant. Now he is the very model of compassion. Does Abraham have family or friends in the cities on the plain? This story does not tell us so. Abraham simply wants to see justice done, wants to see God’s compassion, not God’s punishment. Abraham here is not just a model of hospitality, or the very figure of compassion; Abraham here represents every one of us, in our relationship with God. It is not a one-way relationship, the relationship of lord over subject, of master over slave. We too easily imagine that; that anyone who rules over us does so despotically, without regard to our concerns, our compassion. Or if the ruler is not above our interests, the ruler is weak and not worthy of our respect. We are wrong, of course. The ruler needs us. The ruler wants us. The wise ruler is our guide, not our despot. This story displays, early on, the relationship of God and humanity; a relationship where God listens, where God’s compassion can be stirred, can be encouraged, can be engaged. A relationship where God has to realize there are other interests, other views, other people involved.

That’s the fundamental problem of utilitarianism: it sweeps away the concerns of the individual, or even the minority, in favor of an easier solution which fastens onto what the majority, or in reality the powerful, favor. God here is the powerful; God, here, rules and has an absolute right to power, a right that cannot be overruled. But God is a god of justice, not of rule; a god of justice, not of power. And justice is a relationship, not a blind force that rules without regard for the needs of the ruled.

Justice, Abraham argues, is not utilitarianism; it is its inverse, perhaps even its opposite. The greatest good is justice, but the greater good is compassion. The greater good is recognizing that the facts determine the outcome, not the system, the moral code, the perceived needs of the many or even the powerful. For the sake of 10, says God, Sodom and Gomorrah will be spared. Not for the sake of God; that reason comes later, after the Exile, when God pledges to bring Israel back for God’s sake, because of God’s compassion. This time it is Abraham’s appeal that stirs God’s compassion. It is Abraham’s challenge to the easy answer of utilitarianism, of ruling without distinction, of establishing a system which is given responsibility for what people don’t want to be responsible for. We are, Abraham understands, responsible to each other; but does that mean we are also responsible for each other? If we are, then at what point do the actions of the few redeem the actions of the many? For if they never do, then all are lost, and there is no hope anywhere under God’s heaven.

Utilitarianism rewards the powerful by telling them their position and their power is the best for everybody, that it ensures the system provides the most equitable distribution possible. But we don’t want justice distributed as equitably. We don’t want the blameless punished because of the wicked. Yet one is as just as the other, if all we are concerned about is the greatest good for the greatest number. But we don’t live our personal lives that way.

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
We live our personal lives aware of what those we care for, need. The only difference between us, and Abraham is the limit on who we care for. We care for our families, our friends; Abraham cares for the people in Sodom and Gomorrah. We ask for good things for ourselves; Abraham asks for good things for others. He asks for this, not just for the just, but for the unjust as well. What do we weigh on the scales of justice, for whom do we see them balance? For the many? Or for the few? Our children are the few, but in our hearts and minds they are the only ones; and still, we who are evil know how to give them good gifts. Why do we restrict those gifts only to those we care for? If we ask God to give us the Holy Spirit, won’t we be asking God to make us care for others, wherever they are, whoever they are?


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