Archive for the ‘Obama’ Tag
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.
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.
There is a human tendency to worship the works of our hands, to see moral and political and social progress as a human achievement. We worship our heritage, we worship human leaders, we worship our ideals. What we forget is how frail we human beings are, how readily we fall into selfish, hurtful, and wicked ways, and how frequently the good we do and the good we intend is mixed with evil motives and evil consequences. There is a song by Rich Mullins called “We are Not as Strong as We Think We Are” which beautifully captures the tragic beauty of our human condition:
We are frail
We are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage.
And with these our hells and our heavens,
So few inches apart,
We must be awfully small,
And not as strong as we think we are.
The United States is celebrating the election of the first black president. Truly, this is something we can rejoice in, that in this country, the color of a man’s skin does not keep him from the nation’s highest office. What was wonderful about Barack Obama’s inauguration speech was that his triumph was a qualified by the fact that this nation still has so much work to do, and so much collective guilt that we have to atone for, both for what we have done domestically and abroad. As we welcome President Obama, our own rejoicing must be limited at this realization–that we, collectively, still bear the guilt of so much inhumanity, and that this human success, as with all our human success, is one which is interwoven with so much evil. The past racism of this country, and the racism that still exists, reveal something about humanity that is very much relevant to the Christian response to abortion.
13% of American women are black, yet 35% of abortions are procured by black women. The majority of Planned Parenthood clinics are still located in neighborhoods constituted by predominantly black and Hispanic populations. Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece and outspoken opponent of abortion, has argued that racism and abortion are connected.
Abortion and racism are both symptoms of a fundamental human error. The error is thinking that when someone stands in the way of our wants, we can justify getting that person out of our lives. Abortion and racism stem from the same poisonous root, selfishness. We create the deceptions that the other person is less important, less worthy, less human. We are all fully human. When we face this truth, there is no justification for treating those who look different than us as lesser beings. If we simply treat other people the way we’d like to be treated, racism, abortion, and other forms of inhumanity will be things of the past.
The founder of Planned Parenthood herself was an outspoken advocate of eugenics, claiming that the sterilization of the ‘unfit’ would be the salvation of the American citizen. “The most serious charge that can be brought against modern ‘benevolence,’” Sanger argued in her work “The Function of Sterilization,” “is that it encourages the perpetuation of defectives, delinquents and dependents. These are the most dangerous elements in the world community, the most devastating curse on human progress and expression.”
Margaret Sanger thought that human beings could be divided into the fit and the unfit. This is the same mentality that exists behind racist agendas. What she and so many others fail to realize is that we are all unfit, that we are all frail, that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, capable of amazing achievements and at the same time, terrifying horrors. We purchase peace with toilsome wars, we secure luxury by enslaving others, we expiate our sins by sending scapegoats out into the desert. Our triumphs and successes and victories never go without causalities.
One often hears the objection to the effort to outlaw abortion, “what about pregnancies that result from incest or rape or spousal abuse?” The assumption it is somehow inhuman to force an innocent woman to carry a child she is not responsible for. We assume it is better to terminate the pregnancy than to bring a child conceived in sin into the world. But we are all conceived in sin indicated by the fact that we bear our morality with us. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians:
We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you (4:7-12)
Rich Mullins puts it simpler: our heavens and our hells are always only inches apart.
What must keep in mind when we debate abortion is that we are always feeble and vulnerable and utterly dependent creatures. The child we see in the womb is our own reflection. To say that the child in the womb is liable to death is to condemn us all to death. No amount of inconvenience should lead us to treat any part of God’s creation, especially His frail, feeble image, with murderous contempt. And likewise, no amount of human mercy can change what abortion fundamentally is–a rebellious assertion of our will over God’s will. We, who are “dust and ashes,” cannot rely on our own plans, our own good intentions, and our own solutions. As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “We are able to have children because our hope is in God, who makes it possible to do the absurd thing of having children. In a world of such terrible injustice, in a world of such terrible misery, in a world that may well be about the killing of our children, having children is an extraordinary act of faith and hope. But as Christians we can have a hope in God that urges us to welcome children. When that happens, it is an extraordinary testimony of faith.”
Augustine writes in his Confessions, “Aware of our own infirmity we are moved to compassion to help the indigent, assisting them in the same ways as we would wish to be helped if we were in the same distress-and not only in easy ways, like ‘the grass bearing seed’ but with the protection and aid given with a resolute determination like ‘the tree bearing fruit.’ This means such kindness as rescuing a person suffering injustice from the hand of the powerful and providing the shelter of protection by the mighty force of just judgment” (285). Our acts of mercies, in other words, are always grounded in the realization that we need mercy, and the realization that “we are awfully small, and not as strong as we think we are.”
Positive psychologists are the psychological community’s optimists. One of the goals of positive psychology is to reevaluate human nature and human potential in order to draw out the more positive aspects like compassion, self-sacrifice, and the capacity for self-transcendence. The new thing in the field is an emotion called “elevation,” or “the Obama factor” as University of California-Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner calls it, described in this Slate article. Keltner tries to study the emotion of “elation” by reproducing it in a lab. Ordinarily, this is easy to do. If you want to study disgust, show video of someone vomiting and then proceed with a brain scan. If you want to study compassion, video of a starving child in Africa with flies in his eyes normally does the trick. But elation, it turns out, is a lot harder to coax in the lab . . . that is, until Keltner got the idea of showing video of Barack Obama’s victory speech. Turns out, our president-to-be was just the stimulus needed to recreate “elation” in the minds of Keltner’s subjects.
You probably haven’t heard a lot about the emotion called “elation.” The word was coined by positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who I have written about here. Haidt describes elation as that strong motivational tendency towards moral improvement that comes from the feeling of being “lifted up” in an optimistic response to some elevating stimulus. The emotion elation is elicited by witnessing acts of virtue or moral beauty, or as Haidt describes, “a manifestation of humanity’s ‘higher’ or ‘better’ nature.”
Haidt got the idea of elation from reading Thomas Jefferson’s letters, who he feels perfectly encapsulates the characteristics of elation:
[E]very thing is useful which contributes to fix us in the principles and practice of virtue. When any … act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity and conceive an abhorrence of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions; and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body, acquire strength by exercise (emphasis mine).
In Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical anthropology (also called his “moral psychology”), emotions are called “passions,” from the Latin word passio meaning “suffering,” but connoting the idea of “being acted upon. According to Aquinas, a passion is a movement of the sensitive appetite (the appetite that perceives and responds to sensory perception) either towards or away from some perceived (sensory) good or evil. For example, fear is the sensitive appetite’s movement away from some perceived evil, whereas desire is the sensitive’s appetite’s movement towards some good (see I-II, Q. 59, art. 1 for a good summary of what the passions are).
In and of themselves, the passions are neither good nor evil. In fact, many of the same passions seen in human behavior are also evident in the behavior of animals. The difference between human passion and animal passion is reason. Aquinas thinks that all human passion must be subordinated to reason (or the intellect). This subordination to the rational appetite is not in the way a slave subordinates himself to a master, what Aquinas calls a “tyrannical rule” over the passions whereby the passions do only what the intellect tells them to do. Rather, the process is more dialectical, a process Aquinas calls “political rule.” The sensitive appetite perceives some sensory object like a suspicious stranger or a beautiful sunset and in the process of this perception, is moved to feel something like fear or joy. This is called the “antecedent movement of the sensitive appetite.” If all is right within the person, the sensitive appetite then presents the perceived object to the intellect for evaluation, which then gives the passion a moral quality. If the intellect determines that the sensitive appetite responded to the perceived stimulus correctly, the passion is deemed morally good; if the intellect determines that the sensitive appetite’s response was inadequate, the passion must be changed or else it becomes immoral.
An example may help clarify things. If I see a tall black person walking on the street at night and I clutch my purse tighter, I am acting out of a passion called fear. In an of itself, this passion is neither moral or immoral. When my sensitive appetite presents this object to the intellect, however, my intellect may determine that I don’t act out of fear when I come across tall white men at night and that I probably responded in fear due to some latent racism. The intellect then tells the sensitive appetite not to be afraid. If the sensitive appetite obeys, then the internal moral mechanisms in me are in order. If I continue to feel afraid unnecessarily due to my latent racism, I am then indulging an immoral emotion.
Another example might be the joy I experience when I eat Jelly Belly jelly beans. As I am experiencing pleasure and joy from my candy fix, my sensitive appetite is continuously presenting the object of my enjoyment to the intellect. The intellect determines what degree of enjoyment is moderate, or temperate, and then informs my sensitive appetite when my enjoyment is getting excessive like when I start eating too many delectable beans.
The point is, emotions themselves are neither good nor bad until they are evaluated by reason. The emotion of joy is only a good emotion if the object of enjoyment is good, like a conversation with a friend. Joy becomes immoral when the object of enjoyment is bad, like mocking a person or gossiping. The danger with introducing an emotion like “elation” is mistaking this emotion for a prima facie good. Elation is fine and moral if I experience this feeling of transcendence and human excellence when I watch a video on Mother Theresa or read a newspaper article about a fireman going back into a burning building to rescue someone. However, if I experience elation when listening to a white supremacist, the emotion becomes quite immoral.
This brings me back to Dr. Keltner. I am not so convinced that Barack Obama should be the preferred stimulus for inducing the feeling of elation. Barack Obama is inspirational in some ways, especially in his historic status as the first black American president. Surely it is a great feat for the United States to move so quickly from legislated segregation only a few decades ago to having the majority of the country vote for a black man. But Barack Obama is also a political figure who has to compromise himself in many ways to get the job done (what Michael Walzer calls getting “dirty hands”). He also holds some questionable views that Christians at the very least should have some distaste for, like supporting the legalization of partial birth abortion and other views regarding the protection of the pre-born.
However, the bigger issue that I am concerned about is that people are moved emotionally by political figures like Barack Obama and celebrities like Oprah (one of the tests Haidt used to study elation involved exposing lactating women to an episode of Oprah’s talk show), but these stimuli are largely phantasms. No matter how strongly you feel about Barack Obama, chances are, you don’t know the guy. You don’t know what kind of president he will be. You probably don’t know what kind of senator he was. No matter how inspiring you may think Oprah is, you probably know nothing about her but the image she puts on. She could be a wretched person to her staff and family and friends, and you wouldn’t know at all. So you have to ask yourself–is elation the appropriate response to the stimulus of Barack Obama or Oprah?
For Christians, I think our experience of elation should often be reigned in, knowing what we know about the sinful and fallen state of the world. Surely, there are many great moral examples to follow, and many witnesses to the human capacity to transcend our fallen natures, but more often than not, human beings are selfish and self-justifying. The white supremacist probably experiences elation when she listens to a David Duke speech. The secular humanist probably experiences elation when he listens to Paul Kurtz or reads Nietzsche. They experience elation because the stimulus is self-justifying.
Christians have long had a sense of the importance of elation for the moral life, however. The writing of the Gospels was largely because Christians felt elated and were inspired to rise to new moral heights when they heard the story of Jesus. The “Imitation of Christ” is a highly regarded spiritual tool for much of the same reason. The stories of the saints were used to induce “elation” and compel Christians to become more virtuous, compassionate, and loving individuals.
The difference between Christian elation and what Haidt and Keltner are studying is that Christian elation is stimulated by God’s love for humanity and his mercy towards us, rather than what human beings achieve on their own. The witness of Christ, the great saints of the Christian tradition, and holy men and women of today is not to the capacity that human beings have to transcend, but rather, they witness to the height, depth, and width of God’s love. It is this stimulus alone which we know is always morally good, and which should compel the greatest experience of elation from us.
I am reading a book right now called The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination by Dale C. Allison which argues that the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew is not just about internalizing the Jewish moral code or about advocating some perfectionist ethic, but is also a summary of Jesus’ deeds and a witness to his character. Allison writes, “the First Gospel is about a figure who imaginately and convincingly incarnates his own moral imperatives. Jesus embodies his speech; he lives as he speaks and speaks as he lives. It is not going too far to say that Matthew 5-7 proclaims likeness to the God of Israel (5:48) through the virtues of Jesus Christ” (22). Allison concludes this section of the book by stating, “If Aristotle regarded ‘the good man’ as the canon in ethics, in Matthew, Jesus is the canon of Christian morality.” Christians should pay attention to what the positive psychologists tell us about elation, but they should strive to cultivate this “new” emotion in response to Christ, who alone is “praise, adored, and loved with grateful affection, even to the end of time.”