Archive for the ‘Barack Obama’ Category
“For the United States, a Long-Sought Prize; for Obama, a Welcome Victory.” The New-York Times headline last week captures a critical truth about Bin Laden’s assassination: it carries more symbolic than strategic significance:
How much his death will affect Al Qaeda itself remains unclear. For years, as they failed to find him, American leaders have said that he was more symbolically important than operationally significant because he was on the run and hindered in any meaningful leadership role. And yet, he remained the most potent face of terrorism around the world and some of those who played down his role in recent years nonetheless celebrated his death.
Killing of any kind, even of someone as wicked as Osama bin Laden, should give us pause, as Patrick Clark observes over at catholicmoraltheology.com. In the Christian tradition, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that wicked people should be killed for their transgressions. Operative here are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth fora tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
Thomists, following Augustine, do not take this passage as commanding passivism or non-resistance. Aquinas holds that is just to kill sinners “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin . . . in order to safegard the common good” (II-II, Q. 64, art. 2). In a bit of a departure from Augustine, Thomas also allows for killing in self-defense:
It is not necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.
This passage forms the basis of the just war tradition which allows Christians to engage in warfare for the protection of the common good. There are, however, important limitations to the circumstances in which such killing might be justified, patricularly regarding proportionality and the protection of the innocent (II-II, Q. 64.2, ad. 1).
Thus, if killing Osama bin Laden was simply an act of self-defense, it would seem like a relatively unproblematic act in the Thomistic moral tradition. But it was not self-defense that most motivated his execution:
Mr. Obama called Mr. Bush on Sunday evening to tell him that Bin Laden had been killed. Shortly after Mr. Obama’s announcement at the White House, Mr. Bush issued a statement congratulating his successor, saying, “No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”
What is this justice that has been done? I suggest it is rather vengeance that has been accomplished, “the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned,” as Aquinas defines it (II-II, Q. 108 art. 1). It is vengeance that has sent people dancing in the streets all over this country (or in the libraries as the case may be at my own Boston College, where amid celebrations, exams and papers still have to get done):
“I don’t know if it will make us safer, but it definitely sends a message to terrorists worldwide,” said Stacey Betsalel, standing in Times Square with her husband, exchanging high fives. “They will be caught and they will have to pay for their actions. You can’t mess with the United States for very long and get away with it.”
For Aquinas, vengeance is not evil in and of itself, but its moral evaluation depends on the mind of the avenger. If the intention of the avenger is evil of the person on whom she takes vengeance, the act is rendered unlawful,
because to take pleasure in another’s evil belongs to hatred, which is contrary to the charity whereby we are bound to love all men. Nor is it an excuse that he intends the evil of one who has unjustly inflicted evil on him, as neither is a man excused for hating one that hates him: for a man may not sin against another just because the latter has already sinned against him, since this is to be overcome by evil, which was forbidden by the Apostle, who says (Romans 12:21): “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.”
Vengeance is only justified when the intention is good, “for instance that the sinner may amend, or at least that he may be restrained and others be not disturbed, that justice may be upheld, and God honored.” Moreover, vengeance, when motivated by an upright will, is actually a special virtue, reckoned under the virtue of justice: “Man resists harm by defending himself against wrongs, lest they be inflicted on him, or he avenges those which have already been inflicted on him, with the intention, not of harming, but of removing the harm done. . . Therefore vengeance is a special virtue” (II-II, Q. 108, art. 3).
I think there is a relatively good chance that a Thomist could justify vengeance in this case. Thomas even goes so far as to say that killing out of vengeance can be profitable to the common good. Notice, though, the contingency of these two sentences. Merely because vengeance can be justifiable does not mean it ought to be sought out. The justification of an act of vengeance depends on whether or not the act was prudent.
I want to suggest that in this case, killing Osama bin Laden was not prudent. First of all, it seems he was killed with relatively little resistance. With our highly-trained Navy Seals responsible for the mission, there is no reason that I can see that he could not have been captured and tried. Bin Laden’s capture could have prevented criticisms like the ones we see from his own family, published recently in the NYTimes:
If he has been summarily executed then, we question the propriety of such assassination where not only international law has been blatantly violated but USA has set a very different example whereby right to have a fair trial, and presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a court of law has been sacrificed on which western society is built and is standing when a trial of OBL was possible for any wrongdoing as that of Iraqi President Sadam Hussein and Serbian President Slobodan Miloševic’. We maintain that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems and crime’s adjudication as Justice must be seen to be done.
Moreover, Osama bin Laden’s execution resulted in the death of non-combatants, including a woman. The Christian tradition has a precedent that in executing vengeance, the “wheat should not be uprooted with the chaff,” and if the innocent suffer along with the guilty, vengeance ceases to be virtuous. Aquinas acknowledges that vengeance may be executed on a populace that bears a common guilt, thus providing a possible justification of the killing of a non-combatant in the execution, but again, only if in conformance with the demands of prudence:
On the other hand, if it is not the whole but only a part of the multitude that has sinned, then if the guilty can be separated from the innocent, vengeance should be wrought on them: provided, however, that this can be done without scandal to others; else the multitude should be spared and severity foregone. The same applies to the sovereign, whom the multitude follow. For his sin should be borne with, if it cannot be punished without scandal to the multitude: unless indeed his sin were such, that it would do more harm to the multitude, either spiritually or temporally, than would the scandal that was feared to arise from his punishment (II-II 108.1, ad. 5).
It is not clear to me that Osama bin Laden’s death has not caused a scandal, especially if the remarks made by his family are commonplace, as I suspect they are:
I Omar Ossama Binladin and my brothers the lawful children and heirs of the Ossama Binladin (OBL) have noted wide coverage of the news of the death of our father, but we are not convinced on the available evidence in the absence of dead body, photographs, and video evidence that our natural father is dead. Therefore, with this press statement, we seek such conclusive evidence to believe the stories published in relation to 2 May 2011 operation Geronimo as declared by the President of United States Barrack Hussein Obama in his speech that he authorized the said operation and killing of OBL and later confirmed his death. . .
In making this statement, we want to remind the world that Omar Ossam Binladin, the fourth-born son of our father, always disagreed with our father regarding any violence and always sent messages to our father, that he must change his ways and that no civilians should be attacked under any circumstances. Despite the difficulty of publicly disagreeing with our father, he never hesitated to condemn any violent attacks made by anyone, and expressed sorrow for the victims of any and all attacks. As he condemned our father, we now condemn the president of the United States for ordering the execution of unarmed men and women.
Relying on the political and moral realism of Aquinas, we don’t get clear answers to the justifiability of Bin Laden’s execution. We get no categorical statements like “Killing is always wrong” or “Christians should never pursue vengeance.” Both killing and vengeance have a place in Aquinas’ moral system. I am just not so sure they have a place in the recent execution of Osama Bin Laden. Regardless, as a Thomist, I am forced to sit uneasy with the president’s decision to call for his execution and not respond, as he did, with certainty about the justice of his actions.
Twenty two days after Colonel Qaddafi fired on protesters in Libya, we are now in the middle of war. Well, not of war. We don’t use that term anymore. We are now in the middle of “military engagement,” which effectively means that the US-led coalition is launching cruise missiles over Libya. But a war by any other name is still a name.
Peter Nixon over at dotCommonweal is in agreement, in his post “War. Again.” “Make no mistake;” he writes, “This is not a humanitarian intervention. We are taking sides in a civil war.”
President Bush was justly criticized for his rush to war in Iraq and for not having a clear plan for what to do after we defeated Iraq’s armed forces. Bush’s pace, however, looks positively dilatory compared to the speed with which President Obama, with very little consultation with Congress or the American people, has committed the United States to yet another war to establish a government in a foreign country that is more to our liking.
And if the principle that governments cannot slaughter their citizens with impunity is to be the principle underlying our foreign policy, where are we off to next? Yemen, where army snipers killed 46 people yesterday? There is no shortage of tyrannies in the world. How much of our blood and treasure are we willing to expend to remake the world in our own image?
Historically, Christians have debated whether or not the demands of the Sermon on the Mount should lead the church to oppose all war, or whether some wars might be justified. For the majority of Christendom, the latter side has won. The first major theological justification for the morality of war goes back to Augustine who argues in his letter to Boniface that military engagement is an obligation of neighbor love, and in doing so, lays the foundation for just war theory:
Do not think that it is impossible for any one to please God while engaged in active military service. . . Think, then, of this first of all, when you are arming for the battle, that even your bodily strength is a gift of God; for, considering this, you will not employ the gift of God against God. For, when faith is pledged, it is to be kept even with the enemy against whom the war is waged, how much more with the friend for whom the battle is fought! Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not sought in order to the kindling of war, but war is waged in order that peace may be obtained. Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace; for our Lord says: “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9 If, however, peace among men be so sweet as procuring temporal safety, how much sweeter is that peace with God which procures for men the eternal felicity of the angels! Let necessity, therefore, and not your will, slay the enemy who fights against you. As violence is used towards him who rebels and resists, so mercy is due to the vanquished or the captive, especially in the case in which future troubling of the peace is not to be feared (Epistle 189).
Following Augustine, Aquinas too treated just war under love or charity:
In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. . .
. . . Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. . .
. . . Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. [The words quoted are to be found not in St. Augustine’s works, but Can. Apud. Caus. xxiii, qu. 1): “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.” (II-II, Q. 40, art. 1).
In addition to the criteria Aquinas lays out for going to war (ius ad bellum), namely, right authority, just cause, and just intent, just war theory also includes attention to the way the war is fought (ius in bello). In other words, the war ought to be proportional. It ought to use only enough force to respond to the threat at hand.
So it this “war” in Libya just? It does seem that the United States is at pains to guarantee that the authority initiating this military engagement is rightful. This is not a case of unilateral action or “coalitions of the willing,” as Ross Douthat points out:
In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention. It was blessed by the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by the Arab League. It was pushed by the diplomats at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, rather than the military men at Robert Gates’s Pentagon. Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to American national security. And it was initiated not by the U.S. Marines or the Air Force, but by the fighter jets of the French Republic.
And our cause does indeed seem just. Qadaffi is a pretty wicked guy, especially in recent weeks as he has unleached his troops on those who have risen in protest against his rule, killing many and threatening the country with further disasters. As the Chicago Tribune points out, Libya imports about 90% of its food and other basic necessities, and Qadaffi is likely to use food as a weapon, threatening starvation to those who do not comply.
But what about our intent? In order to determine the justice of our intent, we need to first know what it is, and that is not so easy. President Obama announced at a news conference in Chile this morning that military action in Libya has only a humanitarian intent, namely, stopping the killing of Libyan civilians by Col. Qaddafi’s soldiers. Nevertheless, “it is U.S. policy that Qadafi needs to go.” A recent NYTimes article addresses this point exactly: “Target in Libya is Clear; Intent is Not:”
But there is also the risk that Colonel Qaddafi may not be dislodged by air power alone. That leaves the question of whether the United States and its allies are committing enough resources to win the fight. The delay in starting the onslaught complicated the path toward its end. . . For Mr. Obama, who has explicitly said that Colonel Qaddafi has lost any right to govern, the conundrum is that the United Nations mandate does not authorize his removal. So Mr. Obama now says the goal is limited: to use force to protect the Libyan people and allow humanitarian aid to get through.
An intention is something more than a desire, in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. An intention (proaireton in Greek) is something deliberated upon, something chosen with reason. For Aquinas, intention is an act of the will which “tends toward the end,” but which presupposes an act of reason ordering something to the end (I-II, Q. 12, art. 1). Intention further includes the means to achieving this end: “the will is moved to the means for the sake of the end: and thus the movement of the will to the end and its movement to the means are one and the same thing. For when I say: “I wish to take medicine for the sake of health,” I signify no more than one movement of my will. And this is because the end is the reason for willing the means” (I-II, 12.4).
So in the case of Libya, for the intention to be just, both the means and the end in sight must be just. And there is a lot of question if this is the case in our current engagement. Douthat writes,
Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require. . . Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require.
It seems to me that our intention in Libya has not been established. Qadaffi is a bad guy, and nobody wants him around, but our intention is not to remove him from power. Libyans who rose against Qadaffi are in a bad place right now, but our intention is not to protect them, at least not really, since protecting them would presumably mean a regime-change, and that isn’t our intention at the time. It is terrible to watch a guy like Qadaffi start a new reign of terror in North Africa, but just war principles are in place because war is such a tragic event that it need be only utilized as a last resort, and only with an eye toward guaranteeing a more just peace in the future. This “engagement” in Libya is neither a last resort, nor is the end in sight any better than what we have now: a dictator in control of a country.
In David Brooks’ op-ed yesterday, he compared Obama’s administration to Hobbes’ Leviathan:
[Obama] is no ideologue, but over the past year he has come to seem like the sovereign on the cover of “Leviathan” — the brain of the nation to which all the cells in the body and the nervous system must report and defer.
Americans, with their deep, vestigial sense of proportion, have reacted. The crucial movement came between April and June, when the president’s approval rating among independents fell by 15 percentage points and the percentage of independents who regarded him as liberal or very liberal rose by 18 points. Since then, the public has rejected any effort to centralize authority or increase the role of government. . .
. . . The American people are not always right, but their basic sense of equilibrium is worthy of the profoundest respect. President Obama has shown himself to be a fine administrator, but he erred in trying to make himself the irreplaceable man in nearly every sphere of public life. He erred in not sensing that even a pragmatic government could seem imperious and alarming.
Brooks says that the American people want a servant, not a Leviathan, but I think he’s wrong. The thing about Hobbes’ Leviathan is that it is a political theory which assumes that on their own, people will not be virtuous, and so they need a strong governmental power to check their vicious appetites and curb their selfish desires. The Leviathan image is a provocative one because it illustrates how the government has its “tentacles” in all spheres of society, controlling human affairs in order to prevent chaos from breaking out.
I don’t think that Scott Brown’s election yesterday is a vote against Leviathan, as Brooks seems to indicate, but rather against the effectiveness of this particular Leviathan. You see, the alternative to a Hobbesian political theory is a virtue-based theory in the vein of Aristotle and Aquinas which claims that the government has a positive role, not just to restrain the evil impulses of people, but also to foster their good inclinations and inculcate virtue. And Americans don’t want the government encouraging them to be good; they really just want the government to leave them alone to do what they want.
Take the healthcare debate. Healthcare in our country is in desperate need of reform largely because our system is bloated and our citizenry is unhealthy. Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts yesterday indicated that people don’t like the current attempts to initiate reform which mainly involves the Democratic congress throwing massive sums of money at the problem, probably raising taxes, and increasing the deficit. I’m with Brooks that this is a Leviathan-like solution. But Massachusetts voters weren’t opposing the solution yesterday, or the Leviathan behind it, but rather, I think, the cost.
The reason people in our country are unhealthy is not so much due to a lack of money, but rather a lack of good lifestyles. The diseases we face in this country are largely preventable—Type II diabetes, heart disease, complications related to obesity. Treating these conditions requires time, money, and resources that our system, no matter how big it is, simply cannot adequately provide. These are problems that are not going to be solved by expanding healthcare coverage. They are only going to be solved if Americans change their lifestyle.
This means that Americans would have to take the initiative to eat less, eat better, and to make physical activity a regular part of their lives. It would also require infrastructural changes like better school lunches with more fruits and veggies, better urban planning that would encourage walking by making parking and driving more expensive and more difficult, more grocery stores with fresh produce in poor, urban neighborhoods, and a whole host of other changes.
But most Americans don’t want to change their lifestyles, they just want to suffer less because of the implications of their lifestyle. And these are the exact vicious tendencies that Hobbes wanted to curb. He recognized what I think hold true in this country—if you leave people to their own devices, people suffer and chaos reigns.
As a Thomist, I think Hobbes was wrong in his anthropology. I do think that people have virtuous inclinations that need to be encouraged, and that the government should play more of a positive role in encouraging virtue than in restraining vice. But I also think that societies can become so vicious that the virtuous tendencies of people get squelched and vice rules. This is what I think American consumerism, globalism, and militarism has resulted in.
If I were President Obama, I would spend the next year showing how government can serve a humble, helpful and supportive role to the central institutions of American life. Even in blue states like Massachusetts, voters want a government that is energetic but limited — a servant, not a leviathan.
Yes, Americans want a servant, a government that does exactly what they want and lets them do exactly what they want. And until Americans want to start doing the right thing—living temperately and moderately, curbing their excessive desires, caring more for their neighbors—Leviathan is all they are going to get.
Today, on Divine Mercy Sunday for Catholics and the first Sunday after Easter for Protestants, the Lectionary presents us with a challenging reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. (Acts 4:32-35)
This is a challenging reading because it smacks in the face of typical American economic sentiments that are based on the rights to private property and capitalism and a strong aversion to anything that smacks even remotely of communism. Moreover, this passage goes against sheer pragmatism. How could society function if this is the ideal?
The type of sermon you might hear on this passage depends heavily on what type of church you attend. Many choose not to preach on it, especially since the Doubting Thomas gospel passage offers an opportunity for a more irenic message from the pulpit. But this passage also presents the opportunity to give a heavy-handed political message, a message that is especially relevant in light of the dire state of the economy right now, and followed so closely on the heels of tax day. What I am referring to is an argument akin to the one Diana Butler Bass makes in this piece for Sojourners Magazine.
<blockquoteWednesday morning, at 9 a.m. sharp, I took my tax payment to the local post office. When I handed it to the clerk, she said, “I hate tax day.” I replied, “Not me. I don’t love parting with the money, but I kinda like it. That check is a bargain — roads, schools, medical care, social security, and the freedom of living in the greatest country in the world. It is patriotism by checkbook. Why should I hate it?” She replied, “Why, I’ve never heard anybody say that! It isn’t such a bad deal when you put it that way.”
No, taxes aren’t such a bad deal. Nor are they, as might have been heard at the ersatz “tea parties” around the country, at odds with Christianity. Indeed, tax day is a day that progressives should celebrate — as we participate in one of the greatest social reforms of the 20th century: the progressive income tax.
Her argument is essentially that a progressive tax is an expression of Christian love and a fulfillment of the economic demands of Jesus. Moreover, a progressive tax is a way of taking care of the poor, of providing relief to the suffering, of instituting reform that all Christians should be on board with, like universal health care, welfare reform, and education. What true Christian would not want to pay more taxes?
The problem with Bass’ argument on this point is that she has a view of the government which is thoroughly unscriptural. As I heard so aptly expressed today in church by someone who I am sure will not mind me borrowing his words, people like Bass want to “separate Jesus’ ethics from his apocalypticism.” Jesus’ ethics were beyond progressive. They were radical, even if for Christians they are so familiar as to be paradoxically comfortable.
• “Go, give everything you have to the poor.”
• “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
• “Blessed are you that are poor for yours is the kingdom of god, but woe to you who are rich for you have already received your comfort.”
• “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
But Jesus’ apocalypticism is a little harder to swallow. Apocalypticism is a way of explaining the state of the world and why so much suffering seems to exist. According to the apocalyptic worldview, God had temporarily relinquished the world to the evil forces that opposed him, a situation which would in some future eschatological battle be reversed and God’s sovereignty restored. Apocalypticism is closely associated with dualism, with the division of the world into light and darkness, good and evil, the realm of Satan and the realm of God, the present age of wickedness and suffering and the age to come of glory. In this apocalyptic worldview, there is no middle ground, no neutral territory. People are either on the side of the Good, or they are opposed to it. If you are on the wrong side of things, you had best repent and turn your attention to walking in the light, or else be vanquished in the coming eschatological battle where God’s kingdom will be restored.
Jesus’ apocalypticism is a little hard to swallow because it makes him out to be a little less nice, a little less civilized, a little less progressive than we typically think of him:
• “Therefore everyone who confesses me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” Matt. 10:32-33
• “So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous” Matt. 13:49
• “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I choose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” John 15:19
Jesus thought the world was under the dominion of evil. His coming was not only to usher in the Kingdom of God, but also to set apart some who would be “children of the light.” Jesus’ ministry was not about changing the structure of the government or about initiating a political revolution. If anything, Jesus expected the governments to be a source of persecution for his followers, not a source of godly support. He says to his disciples in Matthew: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves. But beware of people, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans. . . You will be hated by all because of my name.” (Matthew 10:16-22).
So let’s return to this passage in Acts and the question of a progressive tax. It does not say in Acts that the community of believers sold all they had and gave it to the emperor. It does not say in Acts that the community of believers put the welfare of the poor into the hands of the government. It says that the community of believers would sell their property or houses and bring the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. The community of believers was not clamoring for government reform. Rather, with “one heart and mind . . . [they] bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” The community of believers is at odds with the government, not collaborating with it. Earlier in this chapter of Acts, we read that they are citing Psalm 2 which in no way indicates that the apostles or their burgeoning community think that Christian reform either starts or ends with the government: “the kings of the earth took their stand and the princes gathered together against the Lord and against his anointed.”
So what about taxes? If the government is wicked, should Christians just stop paying taxes? Jesus seemed to think the question of taxes was secondary. “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21). The government uses our tax dollars in a lot of good ways that, of course, Christians can and should support. It is through tax dollars that our roads get built, our public schools get funded, our poor and homeless and handicapped get helped. But our tax dollars get put toward funding an awful lot of wickedness as well. The biggest chunk of the federal government’s budget goes to the military. We have bases all over the world, and two wars (maybe three) raging in the Middle East, wars which Christians have good arguments for thinking are unjust. President Obama’s administration has just bailed out the flailing General Motors with billions of dollars of loans that may never be paid back and a CEO making 1.3 million dollars. And earlier this year, Obama allotted 10 billion federal dollars to fund embryonic stem cell research, which he does not think of as a matter of ideology, even though millions of Americans do.
The point is, Christians have to come to terms with the fact that our tax dollars go to both good and evil things. There is no way to reconcile this fact by saying that your tax dollars go to support only the initiatives that you support—welfare reform, for example, but not the war. No, your tax dollars are sullied by all of the many unethical things that government gets involved in, financed by you, the American people. This does not mean that you should stop paying taxes, but only that you should realize that you do so with dirty hands.
“The community of believers was of one heart and mind . . . with great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them.” Christians cannot expect the government to provide for the poor, to cure the sick, to offer succor to the suffering. This is the task that has been given the Christian community, which, in a sinful world under the control of forces of evil (what Walter Wink called “the Powers that be”) can only be accomplished through the powerful grace of Christ. It is the power of Christ that heals, and the power of Christ that knocks down the sinful and oppressive structures of the world that cause innocent people to suffer. It is the power of Christ that enables sinful and selfish human beings to give all that they have to the poor because it is in doing so that we realize our freedom to follow our Lord.
The Christian should pay their taxes with a heavy heart, not because of money lost, but because of how that money is spent. And with new zeal, the Christian should offer everything else they have—their heart, mind, soul, and possessions to the Christian community, laying all this at the feet of the apostles, and “bearing witness to the resurrection of the Lord . . . [and] distributing to each according to their need.”
In light of the inauguration of Barack Obama who cites Reinhold Niebuhr as one of the most influential theologians on his way of thinking about politics, and in light of the fact that my students have been studying Reinhold Niebuhr, I have been thinking a lot about Christian realism recently. Lots of people, it turns out, have been pondering the meaning, scope, and contemporary relevance of Christian realism. I was assigned a question on my comprehensive exams examining the theological coherence of Reinhold Niebuhr’s political stances, and last week Boston College hosted a conference with Jean Bethke Elshtain, Andrew Bacevich, and Bryan Hehir on the subject of Realism, Ethics, and US Public Policy. So it seems a fitting time for Everydaythomist to explain what Christian realism is, delineate a little bit of its history, and raise a few questions about just how “Christian” it is.
First, we must understand what realism is. Realism is a political theory that views politics as a realm shorn of all moral and ethical constraints. Sometimes called “power politics,” a realist politics is not motivated by concerns for the common good or virtue, but rather by self-interest, necessity, and most of all, maximization of power. According to realism, politics is seen as limited only by power constraints, not by ethical constraints about what may or may not be just. As Michael Walzer puts it, who dedicates the first chapter of his book Just and Unjust Wars to arguing “Against Realism,” realism can be summed up as “they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get.”
Some big names are attached to a realist ethos: Thucydides, who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thomas Hobbes, and Machiavelli. In some ways, realism is a kind of pre-Christian philosophy. It is the politics of Athens and Sparta and Rome, not of Christendom. In fact, pre-modern and modern advocates of reviving realism have seen Christianity as a threat. Rousseau, for example, said that Christians were wretched citizens, that politically, they were like lambs being led to the slaughter. In the public square, Rousseau wanted Christianity replaced with a hearty civic religion, which espoused virtues more in line with a realist agenda than a Christian one. Christian virtues, of which Nietzsche was so critical, were effeminizing virtues that encouraged citizens to be weak, passive, and unfit for civic life or political leadership.
So how do we get from Christianity being the enemy of realism, to a political theory called “Christian realism?” The first place to look is in the political theory and public theology of Augustine. According to Augustine, the moral vision of Jesus could not provide the basis for a viable political and social ethic. Rather, Augustine argued that the gospel ethic such as found in the Sermon on the Mount (love of enemies, non-resistance, etc.) were rather intended for an interior ethic that would no doubt influence Christian behavior but not wholly dictate Christian participation in the world. In other words, Christian morality sets certain limits on behavior, but the moral vision of Jesus was considered an impossible ideal, not achievable in this world.
The place we see this form of Christian realism playing itself out is in the doctrine of just war. Although it seems as if Jesus’ ethic, and Paul’s as well, would prohibit Christians from participating in war, or any form of violent resistance, Augustine argued against the pacifists of his day that Jesus was actually only talking about one’s inner intention, not one’s behavior when he said to “resist not an enemy.” Augustine thought that Christians could participate in war and kill enemies of Rome, but they had to do so with a inner disposition of love, not of revenge or hatred. Christian realism thus becomes a kind of “ethic of compromise” between the strong realism of the secular order and the non-violent perfectionist ethic of Jesus.
In the contemporary period, the phrase “Christian realism” immediately brings to mind the Protestant Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. According to Niebuhr, conflict and violence are pervasive features of human life. The ethics of Jesus, what Niebuhr called an ethic of agape or Christian love can never provide the basis for a political or social ethic, but an ethic of agape can inform the social and political realm, curbing the inevitable conflict and violence and providing the baseline for a minimal ethic of justice. Like Augustine, Niebuhr thought that Christian ethics could set limits on a stronger realist ethic based solely on power, but Christian ethics could not expect to totally obliterate violent struggles for power. In fact, Niebuhr strongly supported certain struggles for power, such as those between the USSR and the USA as the “lesser of two evils.”
Christian realists are unanimously convinced that Jesus’ standard of morality is an impossible ideal. You simply cannot love your enemy, resist all evil, or go the extra mile in our sinful world. Moreover, Christian realists are unanimously terrified that if Christians did try and live out Jesus’ ethics, the consequences would be horrible. Luther thought, for example, that if Christians tried to live as pacifists, the “ravenous wolves” of the world would take over the Christian church and herald in the reign of Satan. Augustine was terrified of the chaos that accompanied war and other social upheaval and considered such chaos to be antithetical to the Christian life. Thus it was better for Christians to compromise their ethic in order to prevent the greater evil of social chaos than it was for them to live out the moral vision of Jesus. Reinhold Niebuhr was a little more fatalistic. He thought that human beings simply could not live as Jesus had commanded them and to try to do so, like the liberal Protestant followers of the Social Gospel in his day were doing, were setting themselves up for disaster.
In an oft-cited David Brooks’ op-ed from the New York Times, then presidential candidate Barack Obama listed his reasons for loving the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr. When asked what he takes from Niebuhr, Obama responded,
I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.
The idea is that you cannot rid the world from evil, but you also cannot be afraid of getting your hands a little dirty (as Michael Walzer) says fighting what evil you can. Moral compromises are necessary if you expect to achieve any sort of moral victory, however small it might be.
This all sounds fine and good, except for the fact that it really does not seem consistent with what Jesus expected of his disciples. Reading the Sermon on the Mount, for example, I do not get the impression that Jesus was laying out an impossible ideal for Christian morality, but really and truly telling his followers how to behave. Moreover, Jesus seems to acknowledge that his ethic, while not impossible to live out, will not be an ethics of power, that is, a realist ethic. We see this especially in the reading from Mark 8:27-9:1 where Jesus asks the question, “Who do men say that I am?” Peter gives the correct answer, that Jesus is the Messiah, but errs in assuming that Jesus will be a powerful Messiah, indicated by Jesus’ harsh rebuke to “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” As Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most famous Christian advocates of non-violence alive today, writes, “Jesus insists it is possible, if God’s rule is acknowledged and trusted, to serve without power.”
The coercive struggles for power that form the status quo for the world’s political activity, which we have defined here as realism, are not the ways of the Christian. Rather, the cross is the only basis for a Christian realism. The cross reveals the reality of the world, namely, that sin is real and that sin has usurped the rule of God. And the cross also reveals what Christians can expect from the world if they are faithful to their call of discipleship. Faithful Christian disciples have to be prepared to sacrifice themselves, to stretch out their arms and say “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
But as Stanley Hauerwas notes,
Jesus’ cross . . . is not merely a general symbol of the moral significance of self-sacrifice. The cross is not the confirmation of the facile assumption that it is better to give than receive. Rather, the cross is Jesus’ ultimate dispossession through which God has conquered the powers of this world. The cross is not just a symbol of God’s kingdom; it is that kingdom come.”
Jesus does not play power politics. He does not fight the evil of the world on evil’s terms. He does not use violence, power, and coercion to fulfill his mission. Nor does he expect his disciples to. Jesus invites his disciples to his own non-violent love, a love that will indeed overcome the powers of the world, but not through coercion and force.
Liberals and conservatives are outraged at Barack Obama’s apparent contradiction of his campaign promises to clean up Washington and initiate sweeping ethical reform. The most recent complaint is over President Obama’s unwavering support for Tom Daschle’s nomination as the new head of Health and Human Services, despite the fact that Mr. Daschle has failed to pay $128,000 in federal income taxes (and the questionable ways in which Mr. Daschle spends his money).
The problem people have with President Obama is that he is making exceptions to the rule, despite the fact that he presented on the campaign trail an uncompromising message of ethical reform. Those who defend Obama say that the exceptions are necessary because certain people who the rule would exclude (lobbyists, e.g.) are needed for their expertise and skill set. Jody Powell, Obama’s press secretary, puts the conflict nicely: “If you set standards, you’re going to fall short on occasion and you’re going to have to compromise on occasion. But you’re probably also going to get more done.”
Seems like a perfect opportunity to talk about the principle of epikeia. Laws, says Aquinas, deal with human actions. As such, laws are about “contingent singulars,” meaning particular situations with particular circumstances. Because laws are about the particular, it is impossible to make laws that can exhaust the possibilities for moral action in every single conceivable case. Legislators, rather, make laws according to what usually happens.
However, there will be cases where even the best law, if applied to a certain case, will do harm to the common good than would be considered just. And since it is the law’s job to protect the common good, the application of the law in the particular questionable situation would be antithetical to its purpose. The example Aquinas gives is the law that all deposits should be returned. It is a good law–if I put a deposit in the bank, I expect to get it back. But, posits Aquinas, what if a madman gives his sword as a deposit, and if he gets it back, plans on going on a murderous rampage? To give him the sword back would be contrary to the common good. The law about returning deposits is still a good law and will have good effects in the majority of cases. In this case, however, applying the law would be injurious and so it is probably better not to follow it.
Another classic example is the person hiding Jews from the Nazis who is confronted by a Nazi and must either lie (and break the rule against lying), or tell the truth in accordance with the law and risk the death of a number of innocent people.
In situations like this, Aquinas says the letter of the law should be set aside in favor of following the dictates of justice and the common good. This decision to set aside the letter of the law is called epikeia, and with Aristotle, Aquinas calls it a virtue. Specifically, it is a subjective part of justice (meaning that it is a part of justice but doesn’t fully encapsulate the meaning of justice) and its object is equity.
Now, epikeia does not set aside the application of a law that is just in itself because of inconvenience or severity. Epekeia, for example, does not allow a person to set aside the letter of the law regarding lying because if he tells the truth, he is going to lose his reputation or suffer some other punishment. Aquinas recognizes that following the law will often be arduous and sometimes will have unpleasant effects. Epikeia simply assures that we see the purpose of the laws as serving the common good and justice, rather than viewing obedience to the law as a good in itself.
To return to Obama. He might have made a rule that no lobbyists would be given political positions in his administration, but if the application of that rule would harm the common good, it would be consistent with epikeia to break it. The burden of the question, therefore, is if the nomination of William J. Lynn III, an ex-Raytheon lobbyist he nominated as deputy defense secretary, is really for the common good.
In a political leader, a healthy sense of epikeia is a good thing, and Obama seems to have it. In fact, his ethics reforms, especially those regarding lobbyists, were not as hard-lined as you might have assumed based on his campaign rhetoric. His rules regarding lobbyists in reality do not ban all lobbyists outright, but rather set conditions on their employment. Obama seems to have been aware that a hard-lined rule against lobbyists would have been counter-productive.
So I think that all the claims that Obama is a hypocrite are unfounded. I think that our president is simply trying to do what all people do–find out how to apply a rule in any given situation so that it is conducive to the common good. As Aquinas says, “Without doubt he transgresses the law who by adhering to the letter of the law strives to defeat the intention of the lawgiver.” However, I think it prudent that President Obama make as few concessions as possible, especially this early in his administration, in order to keep the hope in his constituents alive, and keep people believing that goodness and politics are not antithetical. Is it really necessary for the common good to select Raytheon lobbyist William Lynn for deputy defense secretary, or are their others, less questionable candidates just as suited to the job? I’m betting on the latter. Similarly with Tom Daschle. Obama pledged his “absolute” support for Daschle’s nomination, but I think the common good demands that Obama exercise epikeia here . . . And reverse his support for a far-too questionable candidate.