Thursday, September 17, 2015

Speaking of justice

I've had my disagreements with Pastor Dan in the past, but fair is fair, and when he's right, he's right.

Still, this was mostly Sanders’ stump speech garnished with a bit of religious rhetoric. That’s his campaign in a nutshell, to be honest. For better or worse, the man is focused on economic inequality like a six-year-old on sugar. (I’d say like a college student on beer, but you know. Liberty University and all that.) If Twitter is any indication, his fans loved the speech, and everybody else just sort of shrugged. No new ground was broken.

Unlike my esteemed RD colleague Sarah Posner, I thought Sanders took most of the usual advice pols get on religion: talk about toning down partisan divides, talk about commonalities, talk about standing in solidarity. Which is fine, I guess, but it didn’t exactly move the conversation on religion and politics forward. Bit of a missed opportunity there.

A bigger miss was that Sanders didn’t really dig into the religious material the way he could have. He quoted only two passages from scripture: Matthew 7:12 (“Do unto others as you would have them do to you”) and Amos 5:24 (“Let justice roll down like waters”), without dwelling on either one. Sanders might have told the story of Hillel teaching the Golden Rule to show how close Jewish and Christian social teachings are, and build a connection with his audience without getting into a mushy faith autobiography. And while the Amos passage was the hinge into Sanders’ discussion of economic injustice, he didn’t bother to explain the concept of justice, or its rich and complex tradition in Jewish scripture.

A keen orator like Pres. Obama would have taken the opportunity to explore the theology being invoked. For all that his faith talk gets dismissed as phony pandering, Obama is conversant enough with Christian thought that he can creatively reinterpret it, as he did at Rev. Pinckney’s funeral in South Carolina. It’s enough—more than enough—to convince his listeners that he gets it, that he understands them and their religious concerns in more than a superficial way.
I haven't paid a lot of attention to Bernie Sanders (neither have I paid a lot of attention to Hillary Clinton). I was ready to be impressed with Sanders going to Liberty U., but Pastor Dan captures the reason why I haven't heard much about it except that he went there.  And it would have been more interesting if Sen. Sanders had tried to delve into scripture for lessons rather than cliches, or had trotted out (as Pastor Dan suggests) what is almost a cliche, a statistic about the number of times "justice" appear in the Holy Bible (simple reference to a concordance would yield the answer).

No, the Senator is not a religious candidate; but he did go to Liberty University, not only a hotbed of rabid conservatism, but a Bible college (in essence).  He could have done a bit more to speak their language, even if he doesn't speak their conclusions.

But mostly I agree with Pastor Dan about the implicit criticism he raises against Sen. Sanders:  the concept of justice, v. the concept of social justice or economic justice or "Black Lives Matter" justice.  That's a very risky abstraction to raise in a political campaign; the ultimate issue of justice, v. some specific and more narrow (and somehow more abstract and obtuse) concept of a type of justice.  But it is no more risky, really, than raising the idea that fundamental to our problems is economic justice.  If we're going to discuss fundamentals in public discourse and public policy, let's get down to the bedrock.  If justice is to roll down like waters, what do we expect that to look like?

It would take a deft hand, and I'm not sure there's a politician who could pull it off (perhaps President Obama, now; since we are not as fixated on his being a potentially angry black man as we were when Jeremiah Wright was the outrage du jour) .  But the discussion of justice itself might start to convince listeners that a politician gets it, that she or he understands the audience and their deep concerns in more than a superficial way.

Of course, then you might upset all the atheists.....

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