A strange silence seems to have descended over blogdom, or at least my little corner of it, of late. I myself, who was blogging madly for most of the month, have put up nothing in over five days. My friend Davey, who used to be a little blogging machine, has put up nothing at theopolitical in more than ten days. Little of interest has reached me from any other corner. Moreover, there has been virtually zero comment activity on my more recent posts. All very odd. Could this be the calm before some great blogospheric storm? I definitely have a few big-time thunderbolt posts rumbling in the background of my mind right now, waiting to be unleashed. But for now, I thought I'd do something rather unlike myself, and post all about statistics.
See, a friend of mine was telling me all about this book, and these statistics, which proved that globalization was, in fact, the global poor's best friend, and that it narrowed the gap between the richest and the poorest, instead of widening it. I was quite skeptical, as everything in my Theology and the Global Economy class seems to take for granted that the opposite is true, and that globalized capitalism is helping the rich increase their comparative advantage over the poor. But, I followed the link to the super-cool statistics site, gapminder.org, to which I was urged by my friend, and found that, in fact, the statistics demonstrated the exact opposite: the gap between the richest and the poorest countries has widened vastly over the last 200 years.
My methodology was quite simple--take the GDP per capita of the poorest country in 1800, in 1850, in 1900, in 1950, and in 2007, and compare that with the GDP per capita of the richest major country (excluding, e.g., Qatar) at those times. Now, of course, these countries were not the same in each time frame--this is not to say that there was no upward mobility among some countries that were originally quite poor, it is not to say that globalization cannot facilitate improvement. The question is whether it works to bring the countries of the world into greater equality of income, or into greater inequality. Apparently, the latter.
Here are the stats: In 1800, Guinea-Bissau had a per capita GDP of 289; the Netherlands was 2659. Ratio: 9.2/1
In 1850, Guinea-Bissau was at 285; Netherlands at 3417. Ratio: 12.0/1
In 1900, Guinea-Bissau was at 276; UK led at 6284. Ratio: 22.8/1
In 1950, Guinea-Bissau was 284; US led with 12,922. Ratio: 45.5/1
In 2007, Congo was lowest at 358, and the US had 42,952. Ratio: 120.0/1
Now, lest you say that Guinea-Bissau and Congo are just odd outliers, and are to blame for their own backwardness, how 'bout we use the bottom quintile of nations, compared to the richest? Here I can just give approximations right now, but here they are:
The ratio is 5:1 in 1800, 7:1 in 1850, 10:1 in 1900: 16:1 in 1950, and 40:1 in 2009.
Now, one can argue that this is not morally significant, for various reasons, or one may appeal to Mark Twain's excellent remark about statistics (of which I am generally quite a fan). But if you appeal to statistics, then to statistics you must go.
The other day, I picked up a fascinating collection of essays by V.A. Demant, a renowned Anglo-Catholic moral theologian from the Second World War Era, entitled Christian Polity, and the fruits of this little excursion are already proving rich and varied. This little comment, in particular (in the context of a discussion of the important off a Christian realist understanding of the objective good), helped a crucial set of problems in theological economics click suddenly into place:
"The configuration of a social situation is right or wrong, better or worse, in the sight of God, in a way which is to some extent independent of the virtue of its members. Honour is no less honour for its being practiced by thieves; and social evils are no less evils because there appears no one immediately to blame for them."
In other words, good and evil in social structures can be determined by reference to the objective realities of goodness--does this situation conform to the good, avail towards life, etc., or is it a perversion of the good, tending toward death? Despite the potential pitfalls in speaking of "structural sin," as liberation theologians and others have done with reference to forms of capitalism, this is nevertheless an important and true concept--an unjust social structure can be diagnosed as objectively sinful, before we inquire into the individual actions that might have helped bring it about.
This explains, of course, why the Christian nominalist/voluntarist tradition, almost entirely dominant in the sectors of Christianity that endorse capitalism (including my own background), is so resistant to the notion of structural sin. Sin and evil are simply matters of the will, and a social situation is therefore evil only to the extent that we can diagnose the individual sinful acts of the will in that situation. Individual capitalists may sin, but capitalist structures cannot be criticized as sinful in themselves.
Chapter 6: “Creation, Redemption, and Nature”
In the sixth essay, O’Donovan again turns his focus squarely upon the errors of liberal moral reasoning about the homosexual issue, showing that it leads to theological, and indeed logical, dead ends. This review should be quite straightforward (I know I’ve said that before and still written 2,000-3,000 words, but I really mean it this time). There’s not really anything that even Donny could argue with in this chapter, but I’ll resist the urge to just breeze right through it because parts of it lay some groundwork for what O’Donovan wants to do in chapter 7, which does require close attention.
O’Donovan’s central task in this chapter is to defend a traditional Christian realism which insists that there is a unity between the good and the real, between how God created the world and how he calls upon us to live in it. Liberal defenses of homosexuality, in attempting to deny the charges that it is unnatural and contrary to creation, have basically tossed out any relevance or meaningfulness of the concepts of “nature” and “creation.”
Among the most vapid forms of this theological suicide was the report of the General Synod of the Church of Sweden in favor of the sacramental celebration of homosexual marriage, which O’Donovan quotes as saying, “Here the distinction between what belongs to creation and what belongs to salvation loses its significance.” (86) O’Donovan responds, of course, that if this distinction has lost its significance, so has any traditional articulation of Christian theology, which depends upon a narrative of creation and redemption as the basic background for any claims about God’s work with man.
Much of the current quest for revisionism on the homosexual question, it seems, is inseparable from a dangerous, full-scale doctrinal revisionism, and if there is to be any chance of making genuine progress in our understanding of homosexuality, it must be separated from this milieu: “Is doctrinal revisionism a frontier reached by gay Christians in pursuit of their moral challenge to the church? Or is the gay movement a frontier reached by a liberal church leadership in its pursuit of a doctrinal-revisionist agenda? Nobody can speak for gay Christians about doctrine except gay Christians, and until an intellectual gay voice is as widely heard in the Christian community as it has long been outside it, there is little point in anyone asserting what gays do or do not believe in.” (87-88) In other words, do gay Christians really want to rebuild Christian theology from the ground up, or is theirs a more modest goal? This is a central question of O’Donovan throughout the book.
The central problem of this doctrinal revisionism, O’Donovan moves on to say, is “historicism”--”confusing the good with the future,” rather than rooting it in creation. (88) To unpack this problem, he turns to consider a particularly well-respected example of this problem in the work of moral philosopher R.M. Adams. A critique of Adams occupies the rest of this chapter.
First, he tackles Adams’s attempt to deny that the distinction of “natural” and “unnatural” can be morally normative. What we normally call “natural,” contends Adams, is merely that which happens to be more prevalent in a given time and place, so “in discriminating between good and evil behaviour, as we must, we should not confuse genuine moral intuitions with subjective likes and dislikes.” (89)
O’Donovan’s reply is basically, “Ok, so what?” Just because a thorough account of what is unnatural and what is natural is not empirically self-evident does not mean that such an account cannot be given. O’Donovan gives examples of many things that most people would consider “unnatural”--for a human to be brought up by chimpanzees, for deaf parents to want their child to be deaf too, a diet that clogs your arteries with trans-fats, etc. These are all “subject to the same line of criticism as calling homosexuality unnatural--and that does not make all, or any, of these moral intuitions wrong; it merely means that they require further explication and justification.” (90)
Moreover, argues O’Donovan, the notion of “nature” in traditional moral philosophy “can be seen to do a fairly precise job, and to do it tolerably well. That job was to focus attention on the dual constitution of the human being as body and soul....The virtue of ‘living according to nature’ was precisely that of harmonizing the demands of these two aspects of one’s being.” (91) This, he says, has always been the substance of Christianity’s concern with the body, which has not been a matter of dissing the body, as commonly charged, but of insisting that the requirements and instincts of body and soul be properly harmonized. In reflecting on this harmony, O’Donovan says, “the erotic body, in fact, stands out as the exceptional moment in the repertoire. Here the body conveys a hint of eternity that calls us from beyond it; here it reaches out to point beyond itself.” (93) If we fail to take note of this point, a point that the Western moral tradition has consistently insisted upon, then we treat the erotic body as an end in itself, and run into all kinds of trouble. “If we fail to inquire what the erotic body is a medium for, then we end up investing our perfectly ordinary experiences of sexual attraction with an ontological weight that is, in fact, a borrowed transference, and in our confusion we fail to understand either ourselves or our bodies. We cannot and should not take that moment of rapture in the presence of the beautiful body quite at its face value--though we cannot and should not ignore it, either. We must interrogate it for its meaning.” (94) This little section is something of a digression from O’Donovan’s argument at this point, but it lays important groundwork for the seventh essay.
Returning to his critique of Adams, he addresses Adams’s reticence to use the category of creation to ground the “natural” and provide moral norms. Adams feels that since we must talk of a creation that is fallen, it’s impossible to tell what of the world around us is a natural created good and what is an unnatural fallen evil. “We can only pretend to do this, he fears, on the basis of ‘presuppositions’ about the purposes or commands of God, which look as though they are smuggled in to make sense of a creation that, on its own, is unable to tell the difference between good and evil.” (95) “But this,” O’Donovan counters, “is altogether too skeptical. There are some value distinctions we may make quite clearly simply by reflecting upon the way the world works.” (95) If we are not to discard our basic intuition that life is better than death, something that only the most radical nihilist is prepared to do, then we may make considerable progress in discerning the differences between created goods and fallen evils by determining what things lead toward death and what things avail towards life. The ruddy cheek after a healthy jog and the flushed cheek of a high fever are not indiscriminable, to use O’Donovan’s example.
This being the case (and we might add, with the addition of Scripture to clarify our intuitions--something O’Donovan fails to mention here, but which he would certainly insist upon, given his statements about Scripture earlier in the book), we may look to creation to discern God’s purposes for the world. That which coheres with the structure of God’s good creation is morally good; that which appears to contradict it, such as homosexuality, would seem to be unnatural and therefore morally bad, unless we can discern some purpose of God in it which reconciles the apparent contradiction.
Refusing to root the good in creation, Adams thinks that the three basic purposes of sex--procreation, union, and cooperation, can be separated, so that each of these goods can be pursued in isolation from the others, ungrounded in observed created reality. This “construes God’s purposes in a purely voluntarist and arbitrary sense, detaching them from the philosophical task of understanding the goods of human existence as we find it....Once we separate God’s purposes in creation from the inherent goods of creaturely existence, there is little reason to hold on to the view that God meant anything at all by making the world.” (98)
Since the good cannot be found in created “beginnings,” Adams seeks to locate the good in “the future,” in the revelation of God’s eschatological purrposes, but paradoxically these are “then assumed to be immediately accessible to moral judgment!” as O’Donovan incredulously exclaims. How are we to discern the future revelation of the good but through a narrative of an eschatology that begins in and fulfills created goodness? “For without the love of what is, the ‘new creation’ is an empty symbol--or is it a clanging cymbal? New creation is creation renewed, a restoration and enchancement, not an abolition. Not everything that can be thought of as future can be thought of as the kingdom of God. A brave new world of cyborgs is not a kingdom of God. God has announced his kingdom in a Second Adam, and ‘Adam’ means ‘Human.’” (99)
This final triumphant broadside leaves Adams’s arguments in ruins, but O’Donovan, always the gentlemen, moves in at the end to pick up his opponent, dust him off, and see if he still has anything valuable to contribute. O’Donovan finds something valuable to glean from Adams’s defense of homosexuality--Adams attempts to articulate the gay identity in terms of vocation. This, thinks O’Donovan, may prove to be fruitful. However, it must be subject to the strictures articulated in this chapter--a Christian vocation must be a truly and properly human vocation; it may well be a unique fulfillment of the created goodness that belongs to us all, but it cannot be a contradiction of it. “A ‘vocation’ is a special calling to a distinct good, different from that to which others are called” but it must be “a true way of realizing goods that are for all humankind.” Goya, he says, may have had a legitimate vocation to depict the horrific in his art; Hitler and Attila did not have a legitimate vocation to realize the horrific in their actions.
If we are to find a place for homosexuality within a Church bound to respect the goods of creation and to pursue their fulfillment in new creation, then we will need to discover a way in which gays may contribute distinct goods to the community of faith without abandoning the general good which all are called to respect. This is O’Donovan’s task in the seventh essay.
There is, I think, nothing that is controversial for us in this defense of creation and nature, so I am tempted to hasten on and deal with much more interesting and potentially controversial seventh essay. However, I am going to wait until the end of next week, until after I meet to discuss the homosexuality issue with a well-respected Anglican priest here who is a defender of homosexual ordination. In this meeting, I am trying to follow the model of dialogue that O’Donovan sets forth in chapter 2:
The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape—a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced.
The only thing I have to think—and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!—is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.
I look forward to sharing any insights that I may clean from this dialogue, and I will do so when I put up the review of O’Donovan’s chapter 7, next week.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt fascinatingly points out the derivation of our word "private," which of course is linked to "privation" and thus originally meant something like "deprived":
In ancient feeling the privative trait of privacy, indicated in the word itself, was all-important; it meant literally a state of being deprived of something, and even of the highest and most human of man's capacities. A man who lived only a private life, who like the slave was not permitted to enter the public realm, or like the barbarian had chosen not to establish such a realm, was not fully human. We no longer think primarily of deprivation when we use the word "privacy," and this is partly due to the enormous enrichment of the private sphere through modern individualism.
Arendt laments is that in modernity, we have exalted the role of privacy--private property, private life, private conscience, private faith--and forgotten just how deprived an existence lived outside the public, political realm really is. And of course, she blames a lot of this on Christianity. Obviously, she misunderstands the essence of Christianity, but perhaps, so has Christianity itself.
For class this week, we read a book by Paul Farmer called Pathologies of Power. Since this book was written before the explosion of the current healthcare debate, it doesn't figure too prominently in the text. Farmer is mainly concerned not with unjust healthcare arrangements here in the US, but those in Third World countries, like Haiti, for example, where structural violence, more often than not, supported and perpetuated by the United States (and conservative Christians especially), deprive the poor of access to the most basic health services, or even the means of subsistence. When you read Farmer's account, it is pretty obvious that these situations are the result of gross injustice and downright wickedness in the First World countries, but what is not so obvious, and so what I began to puzzle about once again, is how the healthcare debate in the US right now fits into all this.
I found myself wondering just why it is that Christian conservatives in America oppose so violently the idea of universal health care. Is it just that we don’t trust our government to oversee it wisely, that we are sure that the evil secular state will no doubt use the health care system as a cover for its own sinister purposes and will waste billions of dollars in inefficiency? Why then did such concerns not trouble us overmuch when it came to the Iraq War, for instance? No doubt the state used that as a cover for sinister purposes and no doubt it was terribly inefficient. Are we eager for the idea of universal health care, but just don’t like the current propositions for getting there? I don’t think so, having recently come from this conservative camp.
In this camp, the notion that health care might be a “human right” is greeted with consternation. Part of this, no doubt, is due to a proper suspicion of rights language--it destroys relationships of gift and gratitude, and it has a tendency to make the state the creator and guarantor of rights. But does the conservative accept the principle involved--that it should be obligatory on us to give medical aid to those in need? I don’t think so. We are told instead that receiving health care is a “privilege”--something you earn, or else that is extended to you as an extraordinary offer of grace. The conservative Christian might accept that Christians should--at least, if the need is “near and clear,” right in front of their face--always extend such extraordinary grace. But we shouldn’t expect or ask society as a whole to do that. People ought to do good things, but the government shouldn’t force them to do good things.
Of course, we might dispute whether it's true that the government shouldn't legislate that people do good things, but let’s leave that point aside for a moment. The question here is whether requiring free health care is equivalent to the government requiring that people do some good thing (perhaps like a law requiring that men give up their seats on buses for women), or more like the government forbidding that people do a bad thing (like a law forbidding men beating up women on buses). The conservative argument is that it’s the former. Farmer, I think, would argue that it’s the latter--denying a sick person access to health care unless they can pay for it is exploiting them, it is like beating them up; it’s not simply like failing to give them your seat on a bus. This is, perhaps, where the debate over whether health-care is a “right” cashes out in practical terms. Is the failure to provide it the failure to do something nice that you need not do, or is it a kind of mistreatment of the person by failing to give them that which they unequivocally ought to receive?
Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 might help us out a bit here. On the one hand, we might argue that this is a matter of “how to inherit eternal life”--it is a sort of above-and-beyond ethic. On the other hand, Jesus doesn’t seem to view it this way. This kind of care for the injured man by the Samaritan is purely and simply what God’s law requires. But we might say, the Samaritan’s actions are actions of “compassion”--they are depicted as an act of special kindness, not an act of obedience to the law. On the other hand, Christ tells this parable in response to the lawyer who “desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” In other words, the lawyer thinks to himself, “Ah yes, I am required to care for my neighbor, but, after all, this sphere of responsibility is fairly limited, right?” Jesus’s response makes clear that there can be no self-justification here, no attempt to limit the extent of our obligation to love our neighbor. And, so what if this is addressed to “Christians”--if this is God’s view of righteousness, shouldn’t we want the rest of the world to behave this way too?
I suppose, then, that I would be much more comfortable with the conservative Christian opposition to a government health-care program if we weren’t so often guilty of attempting to justify ourselves by doing the bare minimum, but were out there seeking every opportunity to give care to the sick and needy, and encouraging the rest of society to do likewise.
Well, whaddya know? The Vatican has just introduced a new policy enabling Anglicans to join the Catholic Church while maintaining their Anglican traditions, and even married clergy. Not sure whether I should be excited about this or not....is this a great step toward a more ecumenical Catholicism, or is this simply opportunistic fishing from the rapidly-draining Anglican pond?
Peter Leithart's recent tantalizing post, "Church and City" has set of a flurry of online discussion, as such a post from the author of Against Christianity might be expected to. In suggesting that there might "be a better way to say it" than that the Church is an alternative polis, Leithart seems to be retreating from at least a literalistic reading of the argument of Against Christianity. This makes sense, because, as we discussed last March, the Church as polis would seem to suggest that all (or a great many) of the features of the earthly polis simply get reincarnated within the Church--does this then mean an ecclesiastical postal service, an ecclesiastical road maintenance service, etc.? There are ways to avoid this conclusion, perhaps, but perhaps the simplest is to clarify the initial claim. The alternative, though--that the church is simply the new cultus at the center of the earthly polis--seems unsatisfactory as well. So why not say that the church is the cultus of the heavenly polis yet to come, which currently sits somewhat uncomfortably in the midst of the earthly polis? This certainly seems to reflect Biblical language pretty well.
However, I'm not sure where Leithart's clarification here leaves us. In saying, "The political order to which the church belongs is the eschatological political order of the heavenly city. The church isn’t defined over-against the earthly city, but as the sacrament and “cult” of the city that is to come," it seems that Leithart leaves unsolved the question of the relationship of the Church's social space to that of the surrounding world.
We could take a very amillenialist Augustinian route, and say that the earthly city still serves the useful function of providing a modicum of peace for the Church while she awaits the advent of the City to come. In this case, the antagonism between Church and earthly city is limited, but so, it seems, is the extent to which the Church ever achieves a social incarnation in this age. Alternatively, we could say that the Church, while itself only a cultus of the City to come, nevertheless seeks to live out, here and now, the political life of the City to come and hence achieves a kind of social incarnation as a shadow of the City to come. If this is so, however, it is hard to see how we have changed much from the "Church-as-polis" view, with its strong antagonism between Church and world (although we have re-emphasized the pilgrim character of the Church in this world). Or, thirdly, we could say that the Church's task, as the cultus of the heavenly polis, is to seek to the earthly city to transform its political forms, inasmuch as is possible in this life, into forms which mirror those of the City to come. If this is how we take it, we are back at a fairly Constantinian convergence of the aims of Church and world. So I, at least, find myself no closer to deciding amongst these three options than before Leithart's intriguing post.
If I've missed something and should be closer, please illuminate me.
And further along, he shows he clearly has no libertarian scruples about the relationship between the magistrate and the economy:
Three special, distinct works all rulers might do in our times, particularly in our lands. First, to make an end of the horrible gluttony and drunkenness, not only because of the excess, but also because of its expense. For through seasonings and spices and the like, without which men could well live, no little loss of temporal wealth has come and daily is coming upon our lands....
Secondly, to forbid the excessive cost of clothing, whereby so much wealth is wasted, and yet only the world and the flesh are served; it is fearful to think that such abuse is to be found among the people who have been pledged, baptised, and consecrated to Christ, the Crucified, and who should bear the Cross after Him and prepare for the life to come by dying daily. If some men erred through ignorance, it might be borne; but that it is practised so freely, without punishment, without shame, without hindrance, nay, that praise and fame are sought thereby, this is indeed an unchristian thing.
Third, to drive out the usurious buying of rent-charges, which in the whole world ruins, consumes and troubles all lands, peoples and cities through its cunning form, by which it appears not to be usury, while in truth it is worse than usury, because men are not on their guard against it as against open usury. See, these are the three Jews, as men say, who suck the whole world dry. Here princes ought not to sleep, nor be lazy, if they would give a good account of their office to God.
I particularly like the second one. It really is odd that conservative Christians, who have moral scruples about just about everything else, should have no scruples about wasting obscene amounts of money on the vanity of "fashionable" clothes, by which they also contribute to the oppression of millions of Third World workers.
Already in 1520, Luther was making some rather foolish remarks about the civil power relative to the ecclesiastical:
Some think this [the task of Reformation] should be referred to a General Council. To this I say: No! For we have had many councils in which this has been proposed, namely, at Constance, Basel, and the last Roman Council; but nothing has been accomplished and things have grown ever worse....But this would be best, and the only remedy remaining, if kings, princes, nobility, cities and communities themselves began and opened a way for reformation, so that the bishops and clergy, who are now afraid, would have reason to follow.
On the other hand, it's readily apparent that the Church has only itself (not Luther, or even the Reformers as a whole) to blame for the rise of the modern state, because it was only because it was unwilling to go to the work of reforming itself that they were summoned to take charge.
I like this, though, a few paragraphs further:
Therefore, also, the temporal power is a very small thing in God's sight, and far too slightly regarded by Him, that for its sake, whether it do right or wrong, we should resist, become disobedient and quarrel. On the other hand, the spiritual power is an exceeding great blessing, and far too precious in HIs eyes, that the very least of Christians should endure and keep silent, if it departs a hair's breadth from its own duty, not to say when it does the very opposite of its duty, as we now see it do every day.
A couple weeks ago I posted a very lengthy (though perhaps rather minimally illuminating) analysis of the nature of law and economic ethics in Exodus 19-24, and announced that more would be forthcoming, presumably all the way through Deuteronomy. But then a gift from heaven dropped into my hands in the form of Christopher J.H. Wright's Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (as well as a half-dozen other books he's published on the subject). Wright is, so far, proving to be everything one could ask for on this issue:
--he's very conservative (which means he actually treats the Old Testament as a text, and not a jumbled collection of manuscripts some Jew dug out the attic in the third century BC and decided to stick together in a book)
--he's very well-read in the relevant scholarship, seems to share same basic theological paradigms that I consider essential on this matter (a Reformed understanding of the continuity of Old and New Testaments, a strong sense of the eschatology of creation, a strong covenantal theology, etc.)
--he emphasizes all the right things, which have been ignored too much in conservative Protestant circles--the social, economic, and ecological dimensions of the Law.
So I've subsumed my "Me and my Bible and OT Ethics" venture to a new larger project under Wright's guidance, which I plan to bear fruit in two major research papers over the next couple months.
Here's a little tidbit on an OT ethic of property:
Since the earth was given to all humankind, its resources were meant to be shared and be available to all. Access to, and use of, the resources of the whole planet constitute the legacy bequeathed to the whole human race. The creation narratives cannot be used to justify privatized, individually exclusive claims of ownership, since it is to humanity as a whole that the earth is entrusted. This is not to say that there can be no legitimate private ownership of material goods; we have already seen how in Israel legitimate property rights were grounded in the belief in God's gift of the land, and in its distribution to the household units. It is to say that such individual property rights, even when legitimate, always remain subordinate to the priorr right of all people to have access to, and use of, the resources of the earth. In other words, the claim 'I (or we) own it' is never a final answer in the economic moral argument. For, ultimately, God owns all things and I (or we) hold them only in trust. And God holds us answerable to himself for others who might have greater need of that which is in our possession. Ownership of land and resources does not entail an absolute right of dispoal, but rather responsibility for administration and distribution. The right of all to use the resources of the earth seems to be morally prior to the right of any to own them for exclusive enjoyment.
Chapter 5, “Hermeneutic Distance”
In this chapter, we finally turn to some lines of argument that are aimed, perhaps, more at the evangelicals than the liberals, though O’Donovan is, as always, carefully balanced. Having established in the previous chapter the necessity of a thoroughgoing submission to Scriptural authority, he now turns to analyze the interpretive task before us as we seek to engage Scripture. The tasks of these two chapters are closely intertwined. On the one hand, we cannot make sense of Scripture unless we are resolved to obey it; on the other hand, we cannot obey Scripture unless we can make sense of what it says.
Before giving my own assessment of this chapter, let me first quote the assessment that is in the back of my mind as I work through it. Wilson says, in his rant concerning chapter 7 of the book, “But how about some exegesis first? O'Donovan tries to anticipate that clever trick by creating some hermeneutical wiggle-room early on in the book [he must be referring to chapter 5 here, though that is not exactly “early on”], which in these pomosexual times is not hard to do. Simple right? Clear wrong? All this deep theology is making my head hurt.” Is this fair? I hardly think so, and I will try to show why.
O’Donovan first makes the rather straightforward point that obedience requires understanding--even “implicit” obedience means that we must understand who is speaking and that they are speaking to us, and that we understand the context of the command enough to follow it.
If we are to obey Scripture, we must determine when it is speaking a command to us. Quite clearly, not every command in Scripture is addressed directly to us, for example (the example O’Donovan uses), when Jesus tells his disciples to go untie an ass in the nearby village and bring it to him. The Old Testament law provides a more intermediate case. Obviously, a great deal of its commands apply to us directly (“Do not kill”), some of it more indirectly (“if your ox gores your neighbor’s ox, make restitution”), some not at all (“put the fatty lobe of the kidney on the altar” or whatever it is those passages say).
In particular, O’Donovan distinguishes between “moral rules” and “public laws” (and incidentally, puts those economic laws of the OT that I have been investigating firmly in the second category). Both sorts, though, involve a framing narrative context; the nature of this narrative context will help us discern how universal is the application of the command. O’Donovan summarizes the import of all this thus: “it is not the commands the Bible contains that we obey; it is the purposes of God that those commands reveal, taken in their context. The purposes of God are the ultimate reason why anything at all is good or evil to do. The Bible is authoritative for ethics because it speaks of those purposes and demonstrates them through God’s acts in history.” (75)
No doubt some will be suspiciously trying to read through the lines, sure that he must be planning to take this in some sinister direction, but I assure you he isn’t, and that he’s saying just what it sounds like, and what it sounds like is really a quite clear and unarguable point. He goes on to make another rather straightforward point--that it is not merely the direct commands of Scripture, but all of Scripture, that has ethical application; but we should give particular weight to direct commands, since they are clearer than deductions we might make from narrative, for example. “If we cannot make our interpretation accommodate the passages where the biblical authors give direct practical guidance, something must have gone wrong. That is why such texts as the condemnations of homosexuality should continue to demand our careful attention, even though they should never be treated alone and in isolation. They are a test of our capacity to achieve a faithful overall reading of the Scriptures. If we can make nothing of them, we should go back to the beginning and start again.’’ (76-77)
This point is clearly aimed more at liberals than evangelicals, but he turns immediately to make a point in the other direction: “There are occasions on which nothing but implicit obedience will do. But recognizing those occasions depends on a general understanding that we have to think through patiently and reflectively. And when the church is at sea, for one reason or another, over how to read the message of the Gospels, only patient attention to reading, interpretation, and obedient thought will bring it to harbor. A shrill call for implicit obedience never substitutes for careful exploration of what it is that must be obeyed.” (77) In other words “simple right” and “clear wrong” are often neither clear nor simple. Our obedience to Scripture must always be thoughtful, and sometimes the result of quite complex thought.
Our thoughtful obedience to Scripture must maintain hermeneutic distance, he goes on to say. “The distance between the text and ourselves can never be, and should never be supposed to be, swallowed up by our understanding. Whatever I may have concluded from my reading of the Scriptures, my conclusion must be open to fresh scrutiny on fresh reading--and will in fact always be, whether I know it or not, because the Scriptures will be its judge.” (78) This is really just the same point as he made back in chapter 2--that because we are the readers, not the authors of Scripture, we must always be, in principle, open to revising our understanding of it. And this is a straightforwardly Protestant point. While he attaches considerable authority to creeds and councils, he maintains that, even with the most authoritative credal formulas, “it remains the case that those words are not in the Bible, and their authority is always a matter of demonstration and argument in light of other words that are in the Bible. The authority of Scripture cannot be made over in full plenitude to my words, or to any other words.” (78-79) No doubt some Catholics might disagree, but O’Donovan is not addressing Catholics here, and neither am I.
Again, then, a warning to overhasty conservatives: “A seriously meant inquiry into what the Bible means and how it may apply to us can never be out of place in the church. We must not, then, in the supposed defense of a ‘biblical’ ethic, try to close down moral discussion prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and forbidding further examination. It is the characteristic ‘conservative’ temptation to erect a moment in scriptural interpretation into an unrevisable norm that will substitute, conveniently and less ambiguously, for Scripture itself. The word ‘authority’ means, quite simply, that we have to keep looking back to this source if we are to stay on the right track. Anything else is unbelief.” What Protestant could disagree with that? Well, actually quite a few would, and perhaps with some just cause.
Must we never “close down moral discussion prescriptively”? I mean, it depends what you mean by “close down”...to gag people and refuse to talk anymore is certainly a bad idea, but I hope O’Donovan doesn’t mean that we can’t start prescribing and enforcing Biblical moral norms until everyone concerned agrees on them. If the adulterer called before the elders wants to keep contending that his adultery is fine, I think that we want to say that the elders are justified in closing down the discussion prescriptively at some point, even to the point of excommunication. I certainly don’t think that O’Donovan means to deny this--if morality is to be enforceable at all, then discussions must be closed down (at least in an important sense) at some point, rather than continuing indefinitely. No doubt, O’Donovan simply means to make a general point about the attitude we should have in such discussions. But in the homosexuality controversy, this point is an important one--is there a point at which the discussion should be closed down and the traditionally understood Biblical teaching should be enforced, or should the discussion continue until everyone comes to an amicable understanding?
With this caveat in mind, however, I will move on to O’Donovan’s response to the concern that he knows he is raising in conservatives, a passage that is worth quoting in full:
Why should we find this so difficult to accept? We are anxious for the church. We are anxious for ourselves. We are anxious about the consequences of admitting any indeterminacy in our understanding of the text, which might give a hostage to fortune. Once we acknowledge hermeneutic distance, we fear, ‘anything goes.’ A host of false prophets will take advantage of our respectful distance. They will rush forward to wrest Scripture from its plain sense, pervert it into authorizing what cannot be authorized. And, of course, this fear is, in the short run, likely to prove well grounded. The public discourse of theology is, indeed, one where anything has the habit of going. False prophets are, and always will be, quick to rush forward. So we must simply expect to hear abominations and absurdities put forward with implausible but brazen claims to be consistent with, or authorized by, Scripture. To this annoyance we are called, as Christ warned and as generations of the faithful have since proved. The question is, what sacrifice of faith we would make if, to avoid this annoyance for ourselves and to spare the church its turmoils, we were to close down on the reading and interpretation of Holy Scripture, if we were to declare that there was nothing to discuss any more. To our fears, all too well grounded in the short term, we must reply with the question: is the Spirit of the living God an adequate match for human perversity? Is Jesus’s promise about the gates of hell meant seriously enough to be relied on? Are we prepared to encounter false interpretations with the weapons of true interpretation, the weapons that are ‘not worldly, but have divine power to destroy strongholds . . . [taking] every thought captive to obey Christ’ (2 Cor. 10:4-5)? Precisely those weapons--hand-to-hand, thought-to-thought, unpicking the web of error strand by strand--cannot be used without discourse, without argument and debate, without proper distance on, and attention to, the text in itself, without the waiting and searching that every true work of interpretation demands. (81)
So hermeneutic distance does not call us to relativism, but to patience and faith. The truth may be clear, but we must be willing to wait on God to make it clear, rather than forcing its clearness on others all at once.
Yes, we want to say, but isn’t there such a thing as excommunication, as church discipline, of bishops and such who are authorized to force its clearness on others all at once? O’Donovan turns immediately to consider this point. Yes, in principle there are, there is a ministry of the word “which has the duty of ruling false interpretations out and ruling true interpretations in.” (81) The problem is that in a controversial situation, order imposed from above, rather than order that arises out of patient consensus, is likely to simply create greater disorder: “if the mind of the church is in fact unsettled and uncertain, declaring that a pronouncement is definitive will not settle it, but will only heighten the tension.” (82)
What can they do, then? O’Donovan answers that the bishops can “secure the tradition of interpreting God’s word as a critical point of reference, and so defend the identity of the community as grounded in faithfulness to the word of God. In this way they may restrain the tendency to anarchy and strife that naturally attends on excitement and uncertainty; they may give structure and order to the processes of faithful inquiry, by keeping before the church’s eyes a clear sense of what comes first and what comes after, what is legitimately in doubt and what cannot be in doubt. And in this context--not to suppress dissent or preclude discussion, but to give the discussion the direction it needs in the service of the gospel--they may perhaps declare that some aspect of a question that was once open is now closed, or that some other aspect of a question cannot be opened until more fundamental questions have been dealt with. In these conditions, their gift of the Spirit will be shown, by facilitating real convergence, to have served the search for unity in God’s will.” (83-84) In other words, they can gently guide the turbulent streams of the church, but they cannot attempt to forcibly dam it, or it will burst. O’Donovan notes that this is precisely what the bishops at Lambeth in 1998 did, and that they did declare that certain aspects of the question were closed off, clearly pronouncing against same-sex marriages and ordination of homosexuals. (Of course, we might cynically note that this careful guidance seemed to have little effect, and so why should we imitate it in the future?)
O’Donovan speaks here in a very Anglican way. Presbyterians, despite their conciliar form of government, would scratch their heads at the idea of all this “directing the discussion” rather than authoritative pronouncement. As an Anglican, a scholar, and a modern Englishman, O’Donovan eschews strife--like Neville Chamberlain (to pick the least flattering possible example), he would much rather face the dangers of a diplomatic discussion drawn out far too long, than the dangers of a premature drawing of swords. And in general, this is a rather Christian attitude. But we might ask whether or not there is, in the Bible, a sense at times that chaos must come before order, death before resurrection, amputation before healing. Certainly, the Bible often speaks this way, and God often acts this way--nasty judgment and ugly strife have to come upon the people of God before they can be restored and purified. Does O’Donovan allow a place for this sort of thing, or does he want to preserve peace at all costs? It is a fair objection. However, I think what he would say in response is what he said back in chapter 2: “God may in his judgment scatter a church...[but we must] wait for God to purify his own church in his own time. Schisms may come, but woe to that church through whom they come!” Sure, there may need to be death before resurrection--but God’s the one who must do the killing and raising, not us. (I think my earlier post on the difficulties of mass excommunication is highly relevant here as well.)
This is a call to patience which evangelicals may have great difficulty heeding, and there are certainly many legitimate “on the other hand”s here, but I think on the whole O’Donovan is right. “Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord, and so is the purification of the Church.
I typed up this brief (ok, relatively brief) summary for our class.
Unto This Last was published in 1862, following, as Ruskin himself says in the introduction, 18 months after the publication of the four essays which comprised it in The Cornhill Magazine. Although these essays were violently ridiculed by many of their readers, such was Ruskin’s confidence in his argument that he republished the four articles without any changes, without any additional defense of his claims or reply to his detractors. And indeed, while many of Ruskin’s suggestions seem quite fantastical, they also prove, on close examination, to be rigorously logical, and, it seems, quite thoroughly Christian.
Ruskin does not try to claim that his proposal for social economics is “natural,” that mankind, left to his own devices, will realize the just and beautiful social order to which Ruskin calls him, but this need be no refutation of his argument. Polanyi has showed us that the rise of the capitalistic economic and social order was not “natural” at all, but innovative and artificial, so capitalism cannot criticize Ruskin for being “unnatural.” The situation of modernity requires us to develop a social order which will necessarily be “artificial” to some degree, to the degree that any good social order must be brought into being willfully and will not simply emerge by itself. The question is whether this development can glorify the natural, instead of destroying it, whether it can encourage beauty and justice, rather than ugliness and vice. Ruskin seeks to articulate such a Christian glorification of natural social order in the pursuit of justice and beauty.
In the first essay, “The Roots of Honour,” Ruskin begins by denying the fundamental premise of capitalist political economy--that it is possible to determine how economies will and should function by taking into account only man’s economic interests, without regard to his social affections. A science such as this, while it may be true on its own premises, can never be true in the world. Ruskin mocks it, saying, “I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusion of the science if its terms are accepted. I am simply uninterested in them, as I should be in those of a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons. It might be shown, on that supposition, that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables; and that when these results were effected, the re-insertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their conclusion.” Social affections, both vicious and virtuous, must be taken into account, Ruskin says, and that being the case, our desire should be to encourage an economy based on the virtuous ones, not the vicious ones.
Manufacture, argues Ruskin, shall be most productive if workers work not merely out of economic interest, but out of affection for their masters. This will not happen, he says, as long as workers know that their wages may be reduced or removed at any moment, due to economic downturn. Ruskin therefore proposes that we find a way to keep wages 1) from varying based on the demand for labour, and 2) from disappearing when there is no work to be done. Both sound preposterous, but Ruskin endeavours to show otherwise. To save time, I will mention here only how he solves the first problem, since that is the most fascinating and compelling.
Many of the most honourable occupations, he points out, already function according to the principle of a fixed rate of pay, rather than on the basis of the supply and demand. We pay priests and statesmen (and in his time, doctors and lawyers) a fixed wage for their work, rather than hiring the lowest bidder. We do this because we expect those in such occupations to work not for money, but out of a sense of honour, and for the good of society. Those in honourable vocations are expected to occasionally sacrifice their own good, and their own profit, for the good of those they serve. Why should it be otherwise in the realm of commerce? Why can we not cultivate a mindset whereby merchants serve society by providing in the same way that ministers do by teaching, instead of seeking their own interest and avoiding loss at all costs?
In the second essay, “The Veins of Wealth,” Ruskin anticipates the objection, “Well, all of this may be fine and wonderful, but the science of political economy doesn’t propose to deal with that sort of thing. Its task is solely to determine the best method of acquiring wealth.” In response, Ruskin proposes to assess the nature of wealth, instead of simply assuming that it can be equated with monetary riches. Wealth, Ruskin points out, is ultimately power over labour--a fabulously wealthy man alone on a desert island, who could not use his wealth to employ anyone, would not be truly wealthy. Moreover, because of this, wealth is a relative phenomenon...to be able to use your wealth, you need others to be poor. Therefore, says Ruskin, the normal pursuit of wealth is the pursuit of a “maximum inequality in our favor,” and usually by unjust means.
Because of this agonistic nature of wealth, Ruskin sees that the pursuit of riches is often deleterious to the total wealth of a society. Therefore, we need a theory of wealth based on justice, which does not seek to take advantage of the weaker party to improve the relative position of the stronger. Otherwise, “that which seems to be wealth may only be the gilded index of a far-reaching ruin,” since the lives of many will necessarily be rendered miserable as the rich pursue more riches.
To solve this problem, Ruskin returns to his definition of wealth as power over men: “since the essence of wealth consists in power over men, will it not follow that the nobler and more in number the persons are over whom it has power, the greater the wealth?” The pursuit of real wealth is thus the pursuit of the enrichment and ennoblement of all societies members, and it will become clear in the end that the “persons themselves are the wealth.”
In the third essay, “Qui Judicatis Terram,” Ruskin turns to consider the notion of justice at more length. Rich and poor, he says, will always, as long as the world lasts, come into contact with competing interests. We cannot change this fact, but we may decide whether this contact will be destructive or beneficial, and to ensure the latter, we must use justice. Likewise, the laws of supply and demand are, to an extent, inevitable; the question is whether justice will guide them or whether they will destroy all in their path. Again, it is silly, he says, to say that economics is the “science of getting rich,” for there are many sciences of getting rich, such as poisoning rich people, for example; the question we have to answer is what is the science of getting rich justly?
Justice in employing labour, says Ruskin, means giving the labourer the same amount of labour in return (or the means to buy the same amount of labour) for the labour he has given. A just wage then will be sufficient to procure for the labourer as much or more labour as he has given, not less. By just wages, Ruskin endeavours to show, just as many will be employed in society as otherwise would be, but the power over labour is spread throughout the economy, and down through the social ladder, rather than remaining all in the hands of a few wealthy employers. Just wages will tend to raise men to the employer’s level, rather than keeping them at a low level.
In the final essay, easily the longest, Ruskin seeks to redefine the crucial terms of political economy, namely Value, Wealth, Price, and Produce.
Value, he argues, cannot be determined by supply and demand, or by how much labour goes into something. No, value is objective, it is a matter of whether or not something “avails toward life.” True political economy, then, depends on transcendent values, teaching us what to value and what not to value. Wealth, he points out, is not merely the possession of useful things, but the possession of them in such a way, and by such persons, that they are rightly and constructively used; it is ‘the possession of the valuable by the valiant.’ Price, he determines after some complex discussion, is ‘the quantity of labour given by the person desiring it, in order to obtain possession of it,’ and labour, in turn, is defined as ‘the contest of the life of man with an opposite.’
What about production? Here his argument dismantles the modern notion that the production of an economy can be best gauged by a statistic like GDP. Just because labour produces something doesn’t mean that anything beneficial has been done. Labour can produce many things, some destructive of life, others availing towards life. Production of capital, for example, is not in itself valuable, but only insofar as it enables the production of goods for consumption. Moreover, depending on how or why something is consumed, it may be valuable or not. A bomb, when it is “consumed” is destructive, and so the labour of bomb-making is not true production. “Production,” he concludes, “does not consist in things labouriously made, but in things serviceably consumable; and the question for the nation is not how much labour it employs, but how much life it produces.”
He ties together the argument of this essay, and of the whole book, that economic value cannot be separated from social value, and thus moral value, by declaring, “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.” Moreover, “the maximum of life can only be reached by the maximum of virtue.”
A just and true economy, then, will function by the rich treating justly and the virtuous working to instill virtue in all those below them.
I couldn't help sharing this gem from The Stones of Venice, describing the difference between Northern and Southern Europe:
Let us...imagine the Mediterranean lying beneath us like an irregular lake, and an its ancient promontories sleeping in the sun: here and there an angry spot of thunder, a grey stain of storm, moving upon the burning field; and here and there a fixed wreath of white volcano smoke, surrounded by its circle of ashes; but for the most part a great peacefulness of light, Syria and Greece, Italy and Spain, laid like pieces of a golden pavement into the sea-blue, chased, as we stoop nearer to them, with bossy beaten work of mountain chains, and glowing softly with terraced gardens, and flowers heavy with frankincense, mixed among masses of laurel, and orange, and plumy palm, that abate with their grey-green shadows the burning of the marble rocks, and of the ledges of porphyry sloping under lucent sand. Then let us pass farther towards the north, until we see the orient colours change gradually into a vast belt of rainy green, where the pastures of Switzerland, and poplar valleys of France, and dark forests of the Danube and Carpathians stretch from the mouths of the Loire to those of the Volga, seen through clefts in grey swirls of rain-cloud and flaky veils of the mist of the brooks, spreading low along the pasture lands: and then, farther north still, to see the earth heave into mighty masses of leaden rock and heathy moor, bordering with a broad waste of gloomy purple that belt of field and wood, and splintering into irregular and grisly islands amidst the northern seas, beaten by storm, and chilled by ice-drift, and tormented by furious pulses of contending tide, until the roots of the last forests fail from among the hill ravines, and the hunger of the north wind bites their peaks into barrenness; and, at last, the wall of ice, durable like iron, sets, deathlike, its white teeth against us out of the polar twilight.
Labels: John Ruskin
So I finally took it upon myself to sweep out the cobwebs and tear up the rotten floorboards on this blog. I decided that if I do actually want people to read this blog (which, I'm beginning to think, I actually do) then I'd best make it look presentable. So you'll see a number of changes on the sidebar. I'm afraid that only a few of the changes I would like to make are possible. If I'd known the limitations of blogspot vs. wordpress when I first started out, I never would've chosen this host. But oh well.
You will see that I mercilessly trimmed down the "General Staff"--I plan to build that back up, but I felt that it need to go through a sort of death and resurrection process, so it's back down only to pages that meet two criteria: 1) I actually read them from time to time, and 2) I either usually agree with them or else find them to be of consistently high enough quality that I can respectfully disagree.
I'm hoping to trim down the number of topics in "Hot Topics" to eliminate redundancies and unimportant topics, but that's a work in progress.
I've actually put my name in the "About Me" section, since there's no sense pretending to be anonymous anymore.
I got rid of "The Arsenal" because it was hopelessly out of date and if I'd tried to update it, it would've been hopelessly long.
A problem I'd love to fix, but have no idea how, is to keep my posts from showing "Read More" at the end whether or not there is actually more to read--logically, that should only show up if there is in fact more. I blame Donny for this problem, though I really should be thanking him for helping me figure out the code in the first place.
I've responded to comments on recent posts, and I hope to be getting back to 1) The Church in Crisis reviews, 2) Explorations in Torah Economics, and 3) The N.T. Wright reviews, once I get my schoolwork and such a bit more in balance. I'm a little too excited about this "Theology and the Global Economy" course, you see, so, even though I'm just an auditor, I've been doing way too much reading for it. A couple other tantalizing teasers I'll throw out there, mainly to remind myself to come back to them--"Fiddler on the Roof, Protestantism, and Tradition" and "Barth and Harry Potter" (I'm not joking about that last one).
I foolishly took it upon myself to read not only the assigned chapters, but the whole of Polanyi's magnum opus, The Great Transformation, and for the past few days have been lost in the labyrinth of 19th-century poor laws and monetary policy in the Weimar Republic. But this book was immensely profitable, if I may borrow a market-based metaphor.
In particular, three of Polanyi's simplest, most commonsensical contentions were extremely illuminating to me and greatly bolstered my ability to criticize capitalist orthodoxy.
The first, on page 48, is Polanyi's contention that the concept of homo economicus that Adam Smith and the economists after him put forth, of man as naturally engaging in trade and barter to further his economic interest, is pure invention. Far from being a simple description of man's nature, it is thoroughly unnatural. Man is, and throughout history has been, primarily motivated not by individual economic interests, but by social interests. His economic decisions, as well as all other decisions, were determined by his need to preserve his social status, and to conform with accepted social norms, because man is fundamentally a social being. As soon as you state this truth, it becomes blindingly obvious. Even two centuries of market dominance have been unable to overcome human nature in this respect--when we look around at what motivates people's buying and selling choices, even in the modern West, the chief factor is clearly not economic interest, but social status. Why on earth do women spend hundreds of dollars on brand-name clothing that is no more useful than nearly identical clothes that sell for a tenth the price? Why do men spend thousands of dollars on sleek sports cars to drive on crowded city roads? Clearly not economic interest, but desire for social status. The same applies to much of what drives the housing market and other huge chunks of the global economy. Marketing experts know better than to listen to the claim that man trades primarily for his economic interest; it's about time professional economists woke up to the fact as well.
Second is Polanyi's argument that land, labor, and money are of course not commodities at all--they are "fictional commodities." Land and labor are simply part of the basic fabric of natural human existence; only if they are torn completely away from their natural foundations can they begin to function as commodities, but even then, nature will continually re-assert itself, and the market will never gain uncontested mastery over them. Money is naturally merely a tool to facilitate exchange; to exalt it beyond this is to subject it to dangerous pressures which it cannot bear. Of course, it is not impossible to argue that to treat these as commodities is, all in all, an advantageous innovation, but Polanyi insists that economists be honest and recognize it as an innovation. Classical economics must renounce its absurd claim to be simply an objective description of the way the world works (which is how Christian conservatives justify submission to it) and acknowledge that it is rather a bold and dangerous prescription for how to make the world work.
Third is Polanyi's argument on p. 164 and following that a society may be destroyed and misery may increase even when economically, every one is doing better and better. This pokes a big hole in the last defense of free-market capitalism--that, in the end, it benefits poor and rich alike, by causing the wages and economic prosperity of all to increase. Far more destructive to human well-being than simple economic privation, Polanyi argues, is the destruction of the social structures and norms which give human existence stability and meaning. Of course, this destruction also has economic consequences, because, as capitalism advances and individual "prosperity" increases, the social support systems that will protect each member of society in case of crisis disappear; the individual is left to his own resources, which, though they may have been augmented by economic progress, are insufficient for the task. This observation of Polanyi's is intensely relevant to the current world situation, where capitalist industry is taking complete control of Third World countries, often with devastating social consequences. Anti-capitalists lament the deprivation, poverty, and exploitation of the common people, while defenders of capitalism insist that, on the contrary, statistics show that these people's incomes and economic prosperity are growing. The capitalist defense may be partially true, but the whole truth is much worse than the anti-capitalist lament; the people of Kenya, Bangladesh, or Vietnam may have a higher income, but with the result of the destruction of the fabric of society, of all in man that cannot be commodified, the result, in short, that C.S. Lewis calls "the abolition of man.".
In seeking to discern a Biblical model for economics, one quickly encounters a vexing question, a parting of the ways: are Biblical economic commands “laws” in the traditional sense--that is, regulations for how men should live in society together, which will be enforced by the appropriate social bodies? Or are they merely “moral injunctions”--commands that tell us God’s will, that tell us what the “right thing to do” is, which he expects us to obey, but which no social body has the right to enforce. That is to say, are violations of these commands “crimes” or “sins”? To clarify the distinction, observe the difference between the sixth and tenth commandments: “Do not kill” is not merely a moral principle that each individual ought to observe before God, but a law that society must enforce. “Do not covet,” on the other hand, simply cannot, and therefore should not, be socially enforced; it is a command that each individual is called upon before God to obey, but God only is judge over it. To kill is to commit a crime as well as a sin, to covet is only to commit a sin.
However, it is not obvious that this distinction will apply in the public sphere of economics--coveting, after all, is a private, internal action, whereas economic actions, as we would usually define them, are relational actions, between man and man. So while one may covet money, this wouldn’t be an economic action as such. Now, stealing is an obvious example of a economic crime. And all of the laws which are clearly elaborations of the command not to steal are therefore also examples of genuine laws forbidding crimes. But here’s the rub. It’s a crime to steal...is it a crime not to give? If greed takes the form of taking what isn’t mine, it’s a crime, but if it takes the form of withholding what is mine when I shouldn’t, is it? We modern conservatives would like to say “No! It may be a sin, but certainly not a crime...not anything that laws should regulate and enforce.” (Note that one way of attempting to formulate this distinction would be to say that an economic sin of commission is a crime, while a sin of omission is only a sin; such an attempt, I think, breaks down fairly readily on contact with the text.) I have always turned to the fact that there are in fact quite a few laws in the Old Covenant which regulate not only stealing, but stinginess. But here my opponent has always said that these laws are not in fact laws, but moral injunctions--they forbid sins that God will punish, not crimes that society will punish.
Before, I have always had to admit that, while this seems like a very wrong interpretation to me, importing distinctions that aren’t envisioned by the text, I don’t know the Torah well enough to justify my view in detail. Well, in discussing this problem, my friend Brad B. and I decided that ignorance on a matter this important could no longer be tolerated, and we challenged each other to study the social laws in Exodus through Deuteronomy thoroughly before discussing the issue any further.
Before turning to the text itself, I would like to offer what may provide some further clarification of the problem before us. I’ve been reading Aquinas on law this week, and he makes a striking point about the purpose of law that we have almost altogether lost in modern society. Aquinas argues--or rather, pretty much just assumes--that laws are made not merely to prevent sins/crimes but also to encourage virtue. This is of course the point at which modern liberal politics departed dramatically from the central Aristotelian and Christian political tradition, insisting that the purpose of law is not to make men good but simply to restrain evil--it has a purely negative, rather than positive focus. Indeed, the modern liberal tradition further argued that it didn’t make sense for the law to promote a positive good because the state was not united around a conception of the common good, but simply existed to make possible individual pursuits of goods; and therefore, evils had to be restrained. Aquinas, of course, will have none of this: “The aim of legislation, according to Aristotle, is the fostering of virtue....The good of individuals is not an ultimate goal, but serves the general good; and the good of families serves the good of the self-contained political community.”
Now, Aquinas qualifies this later, saying “Laws must fit the human condition and be possible according to nature and the customs of the land....Since the majority of men to whom human laws apply are not very virtuous, human law forbids only the more serious wrongdoing.” In other words, although law is supposed to promote virtue, it shouldn’t be overly ambitious about this, but should generally focus on restraining the more serious vices. But it is important to note that the modern theory, in which law has nothing to do with fostering virtue, is not even imagined by Aquinas.
Now, what about the Torah? I don’t think there’s any question that it follows Aquinas’s thinking, not modern liberal thinking. These laws are laid down so that Israel might be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:6). Elsewhere, God says that they are to be holy even as he is holy. The Torah is given to help form them into a holy people, to foster righteousness, not merely to restrain sin (as you can see, I’m certainly not a Lutheran here).
So here is the digest of my first foray (Exodus 18 through 24). (I'm afraid I haven't had the time to go through this and re-organize this to be as clear and streamlined as I would like, but I'm not going to have the time anytime soon, and I've got other projects to push forward with, so here it is, as it is.)
It is fascinating that the section in which the Law is given and elaborated is preceded by a chapter on the ways of judgment--on how law is enforced, and what kind of social institutions are to oversee justice among God’s people. The Law cannot simply be given in a vacuum--it cannot simply be a set of moral injunctions. It is the law for the people of God, and is not meant to operate in a social vacuum, but within the community of Israel, so before it can even be discussed, the social matrix (it would be perhaps inaccurate to say “institution”) in which these laws are regulated and enforced must be set up. Political order, in this account, precedes legal order. Of course, this may seem that I am trying to prejudge the whole discussion in my favor--social enforcement is presumed from the beginning, therefore all the laws which follow are in fact laws, and not merely moral injunctions. But, this would be much too hasty. Certainly there are laws in the following chapters that are not socially enforced, like coveting just mentioned. However, it is certainly significant that this social matrix, this mechanism of enforcement, is put front and center, a kind of preface to all the lawgiving that follows.
Or, another way of stating the same general point--this chapter, I think, confirms the need for mediation. God’s commands (or most of them, at any rate) do not simply come to the sinner as an individual, a law that the individual must obey before God or risk God’s anger. No, they come to him through the mediation of the community and the community’s leaders, and the individual is responsible to obey them in community, before the community, under the judgement of the community and its leaders. Before we can even hear of the Law, we hear of Moses sitting in a judgment seat, to “judge between a man and his neighbor and make known the statutes of God and His laws.” This principle of mediation is made clear when Jethro tells Moses, “You be the people’s representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God, and then teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do.”
So how does this work? What, according to this chapter, are the ways of judgment? Well, at the outset, we have a single chief justice, so to speak, who is also the chief legislator and the chief executive--quite a concentration of power and responsibility in one man’s hands. Jethro realizes this is not good, and urges Moses toward a more decentralized form of judicial authority, one that, we are to infer, is to characterize Israel from here on. This system of authority, at least on my interpretation, is not an authority structure, an apparatus of government that is plunked down on top of the community; it is not, as I have often put it, a substitute for community, but the outgrowth of community. Judgment is exercised within the context of existing social units--tribes and families. It is not completely clear here that this is what is meant by “thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens” which could sound like an artificial mathematically-based bureaucracy, but I think that plenty of indications within the broader context and the Pentateuch as a whole suggest that these leaders were to be chosen, where possible, from the existing tribe and clan structure, to exercise judgment within their particular families and sub-communities. If this is correct, then judgment in the community is to be exercised by the community, through its representative leaders. Authority is very personal, very decentralized, and all based on the principle of representation.
Also note that judgment is rendered on a common law basis. That is to say, the laws and statutes grow as a living tradition of case laws, emerging and being continually clarified and elaborated through the course of disputes. This is not particularly relevant to the current question, but it is certainly worth noting as a principle of Biblical law.
Finally, it would not be entirely accurate to say that in this system laws are “enforced,” in the sense we normally think of it. There is no public prosecutor, only what we would call civil suits. The judge does not arrest a man for stealing and try him; instead, he hears a case in which one person brings another to court for stealing. This is clearly the model upon which Moses is hearing cases: “When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and make known the statutes of God and His laws,” and I believe this is the model that continues to be presupposed throughout the Torah and on into Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. (If I learn otherwise in the course of my investigations, I shall certainly let you know.)
This characteristic of the social and judicial structure, I think, is quite significant. For one thing, it keeps the power of the “government” to quite a minimum, and reinforces the principle that government is simply an expression of the community, not an apparatus sitting on top of it. If the community is not policing itself, the judicial authority can’t police it for them. The power to enforce the Law is only as strong as the community’s will to enforce it. In other words, if the Law says that debts must be forgiven in the seventh year, and the people as a whole decide they don’t want to be canceling debts in the seventh year, then an infraction of this law will never be tried as a case. Only if an individual says, “This man did not release me from my debts when he was required to” can the dispute be judged and “enforced.” Of course, we feel there must be exceptions to this principle--won’t there be cases in which the victim of a crime is not in a position to bring a suit? I think the Law does address cases like this to some extent (see discussion of ch. 22 below), but this is certainly a question to keep in mind as we go along. In any case, the general principle is clear, and it suggests that we may already be starting off on the wrong road if we are approaching the text with a rigid distinction between “enforced” laws and “unenforced” laws, since “enforcement” in our usual sense was not normally operative.
As we move into chapter 19, we have the preamble, as it were, for the giving of the Law on Sinai. Here, it is simply worth noting again briefly the principle of mediation and of the covenantal, communal context of the giving of the law. The Law is given upon the basis of the Exodus--God has delivered them from Egypt, and therefore expects them to live in light of this as His holy people (vv. 4-6)
In chapter 20, we have the giving of the Ten Commandments, in which we have, as it were, laws relating to all three kinds of justice, as identified by Aquinas--justice toward God (1st-4th), justice toward fellow men (5th-9th), and justice within oneself (10th), though of course these are ultimately inseparable. The 10th commandment, as mentioned above, really keeps things interesting because it is clearly a moral injunction, not a law for society--it tells men how they should live before God, not how they should live before society, since society cannot tell whether or not they are coveting (unless they’re being really obvious about it). The 10th commandment reminds us that these are not simply social laws for a community, but more than that--a standard of righteousness before God. The 10th commandment shows that God is trying to prevent sins, and not merely crimes. But we should beware applying it too broadly--after all, it is distinct from the other commandments in that it is invisible--it cannot be seen by society, and therefore cannot be enforced. Can we treat laws that deal with visible, enforceable offenses as following the model of the 10th commandment? This is, of course, the central question before us.
Chapter 20 ends with God commanding Moses to build an altar--worth noting in the way that it establishes worship as the context of lawgiving, and then in ch. 21, He launches into more specific ordinances, case-applications of the general commands in the Decalogue.
So, as we look at the specific ordinances in 21-24, questions such as these are before us: Do these laws merely prevent crimes, or do they promote virtue? Do these laws govern merely sins of commission, or sins of omission as well? Are penalties prescribed for these laws or not? Are these laws put into effect by some kind of authority, punishment, or social constraint, or are they simply the responsibility of individuals to obey before God?
All of these will contribute to the central question: Can economic regulations in the Torah be separated into one group, restraining serious vices, that must be put socially into effect, and another group, addressing less serious vices, or encouraging virtues, that are commended to Israelites as good morality that they really ought to follow.
Now, in the ordinances in chapter 21, we will notice that there are at least two different ways of couching laws here--type 1 is “If a man does such and such an action, which is a crime, he shall be punished in such-and-such a way.” Clearly a straightforward law with a punishment. There are other laws (I’ll call them type 2) that are phrased “In such and such a circumstances, a man should do such and such.” Now, in these cases, a penalty is not listed, but this does not mean this law was not to be enforced. If a man does something he’s not supposed to, well then, something clearly has to be done about it; it has to be redressed in some way, hence a penalty. But if a man doesn’t do something he should, well then, he needs to do it. It doesn’t need to be reversed, because it hasn’t happened--it just needs to happen. To prescribe a penalty is to make it sound as if a choice is being offered: “You shall do such-and-such...or else pay 50 talents.” Presumably, in the cases where a certain course of action is enjoined, the response, in case of a failure to obey, would not be, “Oh well, he ignored the Law. Bummer,” but a response by the community and its authorities requiring the person to take action or else taking action against him.
The first few ordinances are of this kind (type 2), having to do with how slavery should be regulated. “If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment.” Now, there’s no “enforcement” listed here. We thus have to reason and use our imaginations a bit here. Suppose that a master did not in fact release his slave. Well, what would happen? Presumably that slave would bring an appeal to the judges, and they would rule that he was in fact free, regardless of what the master said; the master would be required to act accordingly, and if he refused to, no doubt the community would act to defend the slave’s freedom against any attempts by the master to continue to deprive him of it. It is hard to imagine that these ordinances would be unenforced moral injunctions; rather, they are quite clearly enforceable social laws. I make this obvious point simply to note that you cannot just argue from silence (“No penalty is given!”) that the law is not intended to be enforced by human authorities.
The next few ordinances follow type 1--they suppose a criminal action has been taken, and they prescribe how it should be responded to. These ordinances begin with the really serious ones, meriting the death penalty, and then move on to more qualified cases, where there might be some extenuating circumstances. The eye for eye, tooth for tooth law is mentioned here, an application of the same principle as the death penalty for murder. But an interesting twist comes in in 21:28, where the case of an ox goring someone to death is mentioned. Here it is not a murder resulting from a sin of commission, but a sin of omission, that is to be punished: “If, however, the ox was previously in the habit of goring and its owner has been warned, yet he does not confine it and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death.” (21:29) In other words, if you go and actively take someone’s life, you are guilty of murder. But if you also neglect their safety in a matter that is directly under your responsibility; if you were called upon to take action to prevent the danger of their death, and you fail, then you are still guilty of their life.
Now, I will go ahead and admit my ulterior motive in focusing attention on this case. This seems to me to provide an analogy for why failure to give to the needy, when it is your responsibility so to give, can be equated in certain ways with theft. Taking something that someone needs versus failing to take action when called upon to supply their need--are these totally different sins, one of which is a crime, and one of which is not? The ox analogy might suggest not. But it is only an analogy, and inconclusive.
Moving on to chapter 22 then....Of course there are no chapter divisions in the original, so the laws about stealing here follow directly from those about murder before; the transition is supplied by the ordinance about one ox killing another, which is functionally a form of theft. The laws in the first part of 22 obviously presuppose some concept of private property, though we shall find elsewhere in the Torah that this is attenuated in various ways, so that it is by no means as robust a concept as that which underlies modern economics. The principle here is fairly straightforward, and is really an application of the Golden Rule...if you ruin or take something that is in someone else’s possession, make restitution for it. These laws are of course type 1 cases--something wrongful has been done, and must be redressed.
After verse 15, the commands move on to what my Bible heading calls merely “sundry laws,” since they seem to be all over the board. Here the clear patterns we saw earlier get all jumbled up. We have four laws to start with which clearly follow type 1: “If you do X crime, you will receive penalty Y”--these are seducing a virgin (pay a dowry), sorcery (death), bestiality (death), and idolatry (“utter destruction”). Then, we come to a string of commands couched in Decalogue-esque “Thou shalt not” language: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” This is quite interesting, because here we have commands that do not really follow either of the two types above. Like the type 1 commands, they are about what not to do, but they do not prescribe a penalty directly; rather, they give a threat--God will punish. And it is phrased in the much more categorical “Thou shalt not,” rather than, “If anyone...” A simplistic way of reading these commands would be to say that these are mere moral injunctions, not laws in the way that all of the preceding are, because the preceding supply human penalties, while these say that only God will punish. Aha! These are sins, not crimes! These are between God and the sinner, they are not society’s business! Well, hang on a minute. Do we really want to go that route? Do we want to say that oppressing strangers, and afflicting widows and orphans, is none of society’s business, that it should not be restrained by laws? I hardly think the most libertarian will want to go in that direction.
Instead, I think there is a rather simple explanation for what we see here--we must remember that these laws that are being given were enforced in the context of civil suits, not public prosecutions. In other words, the idea is that if your ox gores someone, that they or their relative will take you to court, and you will be judged according to the law given here. But what about people who might not be in a position to take you to court, people who would be easily exploited, people whom the courts might be tempted to ignore, whose suits might be liable to be silenced? What about widows, orphans, foreigners? God, recognizing this temptation, offers as a deterrent the warning that even if no human court hears their cause, He will hear it, He will punish. This is not of course to imply that no human court ought to hear their cause, or ought to defend them against depredation, only that God will also defend them.
The “thou shalt not”s continue with an odd mixture of laws--don’t charge interest, return your neighbor’s cloak that is being used as a pledge (here again, the potential sinner is warned that God himself will take the part of the wronged neighbor), don’t curse God, or a ruler of your people, don’t delay the offering, don’t eat any food torn to pieces. I will merely note here that the absence in a listed penalty in each of these cases could scarcely be taken as implying that these laws were not to be enforced in any way. Minimally, we know from elsewhere that cursing God and cursing a leader of your people were both eminently punishable offenses, and we would probably assume that the others listed here were likewise subject to some kind of enforcement.
Chapters 23 and 24
This pattern continues into the beginning of chapter 23, where most of the laws seem to be elaborations of the 9th commandment. Most of these also follow the categorical “thou shalt not” pattern, ending with a reiteration of the command (and its rationale) that we saw in 22:21: “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This command is obviously a big deal (and has a lot to say, if I may briefly venture off-topic, about the conservative Christian antipathy to “illegal immigrants”).
The next set of commands (10-13) pertain to the sabbath day and the sabbath year, and interestingly, part of the rationale for the sabbath year law is that “the needy of your people may eat” (although there are also interesting ecological overtones here). After these come some commands about observing the national liturgical feasts, and the series of commands concludes with that oddest of injunctions, “you are not to boil a young goat in the milk of its mother.” (19) Now, aside from this last one, it is almost impossible to read any of these commands in chapter 23 as moral injunctions that are between God and the individual. These are all completely embedded in the social matrix; they are to be obeyed by the people as a community, and failure to obey them by members of the community is clearly the business of the community. These laws do not envision some people choosing to observe the Sabbath year and others not, some observing the Sabbath day and others not--no, these commands only make sense if they are observed by the community.
I would then suggest that, as I read the whole of the commands in 20-23, it is hard to see how any of them could be moral injunctions forbidding “sins,” and others real laws forbidding “crimes,”--they all seem to be part and parcel of the same kind of regulation of community life. This is emphasized further in the way that the community responds to these laws by renewing covenant in chapter 24: “Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do.” (v. 3)
I would thus suggest that, among all the fascinating things we can discern about law in these first chapters, we cannot discern here at least a disjunction between “sins” and “crimes,” between “moral injunctions” and “laws,” at least when it comes to external actions. But this is only part 1 of a long study. We shall see where the rest of the Torah leads us.
An Anglican priest here, a fellow student, said to me just an hour ago, "The problem with the way the evangelicals handle the homosexuality issue is that many of those who are leading the charge against it are on their third wife--they've managed to comfortably do away with prohibitions on divorce. And they're up to their knees in investments, having conveniently discarded the prohibition on usury. They've swallowed those camels and are now straining out the gnat of homosexuality. They defend their focus on this issue by saying, 'It's not about homosexuality as such, but about Scriptural authority.' But what happened to Scriptural authority on divorce? Or on usury?"
I simply raised my eyebrows and went about my business for the next hour, but it just hit me, hard, like a freight train in my skull.
I don't think homosexuality is a mere gnat, and as for divorce, I would say it is different because there seems to be some Scriptural ambiguity on the question. But what about usury? Here is an issue in which there is no Scriptural ambiguity. Conservative evangelicals, to my knowledge, have not tried to argue that the Scripture actually permits usury. Rather, they have argued that cultural and economic circumstances have changed, so that the Scriptural ban on usury no longer applies; in our Christian freedom, we can free ourselves from that particular prohibition.
But that's exactly what the liberals are claiming about homosexuality! On what basis can we cry "foul" over the camel they're swallowing, when we long ago swallowed our own? If this isn't hypocrisy, what is? This isn't intended as any defense of homosexuality, but it does seem to render indefensible our attitude of refusing to associate with homosexual-tolerating churches, while happily embracing churches that have compromised entirely on the economics of Scripture.