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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Human Rights and Justice Part 2

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights..."

I left out the part about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the meaning and legitimacy of which, as rights, I might want to debate. But that is not the point of this blog post. The point that interests me here is the the phrase "self-evident." These truths might have been self-evident to Thomas Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration of Independence, but they were not and are not self-evident to everyone.

(First a couple of asides. The founders of this nation were not necessarily Christian, and Thomas Jefferson, if he was a Christian, was on the edge of Christian faith. Were he with us today, I suspect he, and many of the founders, would be most at home in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and hence would find it virtually impossible to be elected to national office. That said, if Wolterstorff is correct (see part 1), the biblical witness had a profound impact on Jefferson's views. Second, Marilynne Robinson writes in the introduction to her collection of essays, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, that Jefferson's understanding of "all men" is broader than thought, and that an earlier draft of the Declaration contained a polemic against slavery.)

Equality is an elusive word, which is highlighted in Orwell's description of the dystopia Manor Farm, all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others. When does equal mean equal and when does it not? Obviously, we are all different, equal must not mean identical. The Apostle Paul celebrates different but equal gifts, coming from the same source. We all have different needs, although some needs we all have in common. We all need water, but we don't all need combs, for example.

I'm not sure about the Declaration of Independence. It is a political document and it's use of the word equality might be purely political, but in the biblical tradition equality has a moral flavor, not just a political or economic meaning. In biblical thought, people are valued for their status as God's creatures, and, as such all have value. And no one has value greater than can be conferred by the Creator. For most of us this idea is de rigueur. But we are wise to remember that this idea, this biblical notion of equality, has enemies.

I remember doing a social icebreaker once where we were to pretend we were on a life boat on the open sea, and did not have enough provisions for everyone. We were to choose, based on the occupation and skills of each member, who could stay on the boat and who would have to be tossed overboard. The idea is that you keep the skills most useful for survival and get rid of those who contribute less. At a micro level this is what social groupings tend to do. Some are worth more because what they can contribute to the well being and prosperity of society is greater. Human societies choose individuals who contribute to the advancement of the whole over against those who, for whatever reason, are a drag on society, even if through no fault of their own. One could argue that this is only natural, even moral. What right does someone who contributes little or nothing to the prosperity and well being of a society have to make claims on that society for sustenance? If all that matters is the material well being, prosperity or survival of the society as a whole, I would have to say no right at all.

But the Bible confronts the view that human beings are disposable head on. The biblical community, Israel, is to care for those on the margins of society, widows, orphans, strangers, aliens, and the poor. Whether or not they are contributing to the well-being, prosperity, survival, is irrelevant. It is a command, because the people were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord brought them out with a mighty hand. It is a command because God says they are "my" poor. It is a command because the well-being of the people rests not on calculations of worth to society, but on obedience to God. In the biblical view, human worth is not decided in utilitarian terms. But this kind of utilitarianism has a relentless logic, and is a powerful adversary to the idea that each person is of equal worth.

Another enemy to the biblical concept of equality, that is to the idea that each person makes claims on society based only on the fact that each is created by God, is market absolutism. Like the utilitarian adversary, it is popular, and the two sometimes collude. The free market determines who has resources and who does not in the most ruthless of fashions. If you do not have skills the market deems worthwhile, and you find yourself destitute, then you need to get those skills. If you do not have the ability to get those skills, that's tough. When we consider disparities generated by the market that seem unfair, such as the disparity in pay between a day care teacher and a professional athlete, we shrug and say the market giveth and the market taketh away, blessed be the Market. The Market is ascribed in our society with moral authority, and in many ways it has been the source of much prosperity for many of us, certainly for our society as a whole. But inevitably, the market leaves many behind.

Jared Diamond writes in his widely read short history of the world, Guns, Germs and Steel, that agricultural development and political sophistication in societies went hand in hand. In an earlier blog I wrote about a Mamanwa community in northeastern Mindanao in the Philippines. This community was pre-agrarian, and through the efforts of my co-workers they learned to farm rice, and ended up with a bountiful harvest. Abundance was found in the natural world (before the forest had been destroyed), no one owned it. But now they had to figure out what to do with all this rice, a new kind of abundance. Their friends and family from other Mamanwa communities came to visit, and soon the rice was gone, and the people were hungry. This community simply did not have the cultural, political or economic capacity to deal with a harvest. According to Diamond, as societies made the jump from hunting and gathering to farming, they learned to defend food from enemies, develop specialized skills for growing, storing and defending, and looked to political hierarchies to distribute food and manage an increasingly complex society. Overtime, those at the top became wealthy and powerful, owning the land, while those who worked the land, remained poor, unless they had skills required by the elite. Religious systems developed to legitimize these hierarchies as the only solution to the threat of scarcity, of not having enough.

However one explains the emergence of the Hebrew people in the Levant, it is they who offer the first organized resistance to civilization as it had been known. Central to this resistance, and impossible to imagine without it, was a belief in one God who made heaven and earth, created human beings in the divine image, and who believed even the most marginalized member of society had legitimate claims for care and support. The success or failure of this new community depended on obedience to a law given by the one God. Central to this law was a system for how to handle wealth, which through most of history has been in the form of land. The Jubilee system ensured that no one would be alienated from the land in perpetuity, eventually the land would be returned to its original family. On the flip side, the Jubilee system also ensured that no single person or group of people would hold too much land. The land was God's, and was to be used to meet the needs of all the people.

The point here is that values we cherish, such as forgiveness, mercy, compassion, and justice, have enemies. These truths are not self evident. Marilynne Robinson believes these enemies are ascendant in western culture as what she calls Darwinian and Nietzschean values of competition and survival trump the biblical values, the burdens of which western society has grown weary. Robinson is wonderfully creative and thoughtful on these matters, recognizing that many Christians (what Robinson calls the Manichean Right) have absorbed the anti Christian values of competition and survival and given them Christian form. The biblical revolution which transformed western society from a setting where compassion for the marginalized was seen as moral failure to one where compassion for the marginalized was seen as a moral requirement, is coming undone.

Robinson points out that Darwin, in The Descent of Man, wrote, with Malthusian concern, that, "It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed." In other words, compassion for the weak and vulnerable does damage to the species as a whole. Whether this holds up scientifically and whether this fairly reflects Darwin's thought is not the point here. The point is there is a logic to this, which goes back in time long before Darwin, and which was the norm in the West before the biblical revolution, whose hold on us has perhaps always been tenuous. Robinson suggests we do not have to look hard to see this logic at work in our political and social discourse, and especially in economic doctrine. The Death of Adam was written in 1996, and mostly the trends she identifies in this line have accelerated.

Today we see the poor and marginalized demonized for dragging us down, and the rich venerated for creating jobs and making a better society. The political-economic ideas of the Nietzschean/Darwinian, Ayn Rand are wildly popular, sales of her best known book, Atlas Shrugged, are booming, more than fifty years after its original publication. The ideas represented in this line of thought are powerful and compelling. I agree with Robinson that secular thought,either in science or philosophy, has nothing with which to combat them. It is critical at this time that Christians embrace our tradition and root ourselves deeply in faith in the God of the Bible who made all of us in the divine image, and who demands that we treat each other with respect and decency, politically, economically, and socially, simply because of this one glorious fact.


Carl said...

Thank you, Phil. This is a very helpful supplement for those of us who are currently studying "God Calls for Justice" in our Sunday School. Carl M

Julia Smucker said...

You're touching on a complicated tangle of social issues here. On the one hand, there is a rugged individualism, exemplified by the idolatry of the market (as John Paul II called it) but cutting across the political spectrum, according to which individual autonomy, even a too-broadly defined notion of individual rights, takes precedence over the common good. On the other hand, there is also a vicious utilitarian collectivism by which those individuals who are judged less useful to society are marginalized and denied their legitimate rights that are based on the human dignity equally shared by all. Ironically, there are overtones of social darwinism in both of these tendencies. No wonder our political sphere is such a moral minefield.

Phil Waite said...

Carl, I wish I could get to all the classes. Julia, you would enjoy Wolterstorff. He addresses the concern you raise with some vigor.

Anonymous said...

Where does responsibility to take care of each other, being content with less, etc. fit into our life together? Should it be Christians giving freely to the worthy poor? Are there enough Christians to take care of the needs of the poor? If living things have their needs met too easily will they lose the ability to live on their own and as a result become dependent? I worry about the next generation. Can we as a body of believers make a difference? Have we made people too dependent on hand-outs. One person at a time may be the only way and that takes a person relating to another, whoever or wherever or however we meet those who are in need.

Anonymous said...

Response to Anonymous,

In my life experiences in working with an "at-risk" population ("at-risk" for numerous reasons), I have yet to come across a human being that desires to live from day-to-day on "hand-outs" solely. Granted, some appear resigned to generational poverty, but there are many more thrust into situational poverty than conditioned by familial traits or public policy.
Your premise, in my humble opinion, seems to exclude any possibility of situational disadvantages, which I dare say to which we all have potential in life.

Don Metzler-Smith said...

To Anonymous #1,

I am the person who wrote a comment on impoverished individuals not wanting to be constantly reliant on others to live. I was not a registered blogger at the time and could only post as anonymous.