Adventus

"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

Monday, April 09, 2012

Justice is not fair



Apropos of TBogg's observations, I would just add in response to Rick Warren's statement:

WARREN: Well, certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor. There’s over 2,000 versus in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them and God will bless them. But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation…
there's almost nothing in the Scriptures that addresses "fairness."

What the prophets address, and certainly what the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth address, is justice. Those "over 2,000 versus [sic] in the Bible about the poor," don't address fairness to the poor. They address justice.

And believe me, as a lawyer who represented people in court, justice is not fair; especially if you lose. It seems very unfair indeed.

Justice is not about fairness. It is about what is just. As for what is "just" and "redistribution of wealth," I would start with the words of John the Baptist:

The crowds would ask him: "So what should we do?"

And he would answer them, "Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same." (Luke 3:10-11, SV)
Is it fair for John to demand that level of sacrifice? Or is it just? Or is he just demanding a redistribution of wealth in a teaching contrary to the clear will of God, else why would some people be rich, and some poor? In simplest terms, fairness is about me, and what is good for me. Justice is about what is right; and that certainly may not be good for me. For Warren to jump from scriptures that mention the poor, to "fairness" that defends the position of the wealthy (like Warren), is reprehensible.

To John's words I would add words I've used here more than once before*:

"What keeps you from giving now? Isn't the poor person there? Aren't your own warehouses full? Isn't the reward promised? The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now-and you want to wait until tomorrow? "I'm not doing any harm," you say. "I just want to keep what I own, that's all." You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone's use is your own. . . . If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. After all, didn't you come into life naked, and won't you return naked to the earth?

"The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help."

Basil
4th Century

"The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds--and also big enough to shut out the voices of the poor....There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering."

Ambrose
But as long as these matters are not within your control, or it's about "redistribution of wealth," or you can't help it if you're well off and others are too lazy or greedy to be as comfortable as you, then everything's okay. Apparently. After all, as long as you give money to the church, God wants you to be rich!

Well, that's what Rick Warren seems to think. The passage TBogg quotes comes from an interview where Warren says just that:

“The biggest problem for all of our economic problems is our inability to delay gratification,” Warren said, with individuals and the government following the attitude of, “I want it and I want it now, and I’m going to buy it even if I can’t afford it.”
The consistent teaching of Christianity since the letters of Paul is that our expectation of gratification is the fundamental problem. Not that we should suffer in order to achieve perfection; but the relentless pursuit of gratification, delayed or immediately satisfied, is what got us into this mess in the first place. And frankly this:

WARREN: I hold everybody responsible for that. I hold the people who got themselves in debt. I hold the government that got themselves in debt. I hold multiple administrations. It’s not the fault of any one person. There's plenty enough blame to be passed around.
Just sounds like: "First we point the finger at everyone who screwed this up, because the best starting point is laying blame." And that is so antithetical to Christian teachings as to be virtually un-Christian (if it weren't so commonly accepted among Christians). 'Do not judge, and you will not be judged.' Does that sound at all familiar?

*in fact, in connection with Rick Warren. There is indeed nothing new under the sun.

8 Comments:

Blogger alberich said...

I have had similar debates with Jewish conservatives/libertarians concerning how Jewish legal codes emphasize economic justice. And the response is always something along the lines of:

"yes -- according to Jewish law we should give of our wealth to the needy in our community, but Jewish law only addresses the moral obligations of Jews (toward other Jews [-- although that is debatable]) ... it is the height of morality for me to give of my wealth toward my brother in need, but government should have no right to do that on my behalf, e.g. with wealth redistribution via taxation"

I am sure that Rick Warren would respond to your post here in a similar way. Interestingly however, those who say government has no business enforcing religious morality about economic justice happily want to have government enforce their vision of religious morality about sexual matters.

Then again, there is some consistency in that approach: government cannot and should not make people be moral (c.f. the ideas of Robert Nisbet) but can enforce certain standards that create an environment of morality -- in this framework, it makes sense for government to regulate sexual mores to create an environment of morality but not to coercively enforce the morality of economic justice.

Of course, then again, "a foolish consistency if the hobgoblin of little minds". But then again, personally, I have never been a big fan of Emerson ...

12:27 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Then again, there is some consistency in that approach: government cannot and should not make people be moral (c.f. the ideas of Robert Nisbet) but can enforce certain standards that create an environment of morality -- in this framework, it makes sense for government to regulate sexual mores to create an environment of morality but not to coercively enforce the morality of economic justice.

Except government coercively enforces" the morality of "Might Makes Right" not only against its own citizens (we incarcerate a greater percentage of our population than almost any country on the planet), but against those with whom we strongly disagree (unless it involves another ground war in Asia. Burma seems to have gone democratic rather peacefully and without any US Senator calling for military intervention, whereas in Syria we must send in the Marines NOW!).

And that's okay even though I am a committed pacifist because, well, the only right I have is conscientious objection to conscription. And even that doesn't go very far against my being conscripted....

Overall, I tend to agree with Niebuhr: government doesn't enforce morality so much as it follows its prime function, which is to keep the community safe and intact. That we confuse that with "morality" is our error, not government's.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Oh, and Rick Warren's primary concern is with keeping his. I would critique, not his political theory, but his theology.

If he can even be said to have one.....

2:00 PM  
Anonymous drkrick said...

It's worth noting that Warren's premise is also incorrect on its own terms. Something like half of all Americans pay no income taxes. There are lots of other taxes in America that fall on rich and poor alike. Some, like sales taxes, fall more heavily on the poor than on the rich.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

One might note the number of corporations which pay no income tax (26 of the largest, according to Think Progress) and wonder how Rick Warren feels about them.

2:55 PM  
Blogger alberich said...

Overall, I tend to agree with Niebuhr: government doesn't enforce morality so much as it follows its prime function, which is to keep the community safe and intact. That we confuse that with "morality" is our error, not government's. - RMJ

But in fact that is the argument of many a conservative interlocutor of mine: government should not and in fact cannot enforce morality, and in particular, it cannot promote economic justice. What government can do is to create an environment where people are more likely to be moral and also keep the community safe and intact (e.g. by ruthless enforcement of law and order, with an emphasis on the latter).

I don't know what Warren says or really thinks, but the argument I always hear from his ilk who claim to follow a morality in which wealth redistribution is a key factor (even if they try to avoid even thinking about the wealth redistribution aspect of their morality) is indeed that government cannot and should not be moral.

OTOH, some moral systems do place the safety and intactness of the community as a key moral good and also as a consequence of moral behavior on the part of individuals. Indeed, this is arguably the point of view of the Torah. And wealth redistribution (e.g. via the system of tithes and some of the sacrifices which serve as communal meals) is a key aspect of not only "morality" but also of ensuring the safety and intactness of the community: c.f. the many blessings and curses in the Torah relating to what will happen to the community depending on people's morality and sense of economic justice. In this view, a key part of the government's function in keeping the community safe and intact is the enforcement of morality, at least the communal (e.g. economic justice) aspects of morality.

Anyway, thank you for getting me thinking ;)

10:02 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Alberich--

Thanks for extending your thoughts (and for just coming by!). I completely agree with you, and it's interesting how ethics/morality has become divorced from public discussion.

In fact, I don't have room here to do it justice, so....

10:06 AM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

I wrote more about you know what.

http://zthoughtcriminal.blogspot.com/

Hi, Alberich, I'm using my real name these days.

Anthony McCarthy, frmly olvlzl

12:17 PM  

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