Businessmen and Entrepreneurs

A confession: I have not actually been listening to the GOP convention live. And I won’t be listening to the Democrat convention either. I am not a partisan politics junkie.

So I get all my stuff second hand, usually filtered through NPR (and knowing that NPR is as annoying as Harry Shearer’s “Continental Public Radio” parodies) or, increasingly from, The American Conservative, and occasionally (which can be more annoying and self-righteous, though not quite as vacuous, than even NPR). Which leaves me commenting on comments — blogging on blogs. And I always feel slightly fraudulent when I do that.

But *sigh*, today I cannot help myself. Scott Galupo over at The American Conservative was critical of what he saw as the content of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s speech:

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other. There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers, and taxi drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have “built”?

And this is true. In the way I think Ryan means it — probably in the Randian, lone über-hero against the mediocre world of parasites — your typical laborer is most definitely not a entrepreneur. Samuel Goldman, in his comments on Galupo’s posting (I am blogging about someone’s comment on a blog — what have I come to?), notes that Republicans no longer have room in their understanding of the American dream for “those who don’t reach the towering heights of achievement” so that they “can hope for stable lives that include a reasonable measure of comfort.”

But I also remember reading this from the acceptance speech from the 1896 Democrat convention given by party nominee William Jennings Bryan:

We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.

Part of me finds little difference between Galupo’s estimation of Ryan thought and Bryan’s words. What, after all, is the difference between and “entrepreneur” and a “businessman”?
Except there is a great deal of difference here. Bryan is defending the dignity of labor — something I’m not sure Democrat or Republican elites know how to really do anymore. It’s certainly nothing either party would stoop to doing at this point. The man who works only with his muscles is still doing business — leasing his labor to someone who can pay. He still has property he trades on the open market, and deserves as much dignity and respect as any speculator or financier. Bryan is also defending the dignity of smallness in the face of bigness. 
Also, the sense I have is that missing from the Randian admiration of the heroic businessman is context. The reality is, most entrepreneurialism takes places within social networks, in communities, and does so in ways that makes sense to entrepreneur, investor and customer alike. And that seeks to minimize risk. (Because most entrepreneurs cannot get government to hedge risk and cover losses the way investment bankers have.) Entrepreneurialism almost entirely takes place within a web of cooperation and within a community. Bryan’s speech understands that. In effect, Bryan is defending a “property right” where those who most staunchly defended private property saw none to begin with. (It has always been interesting to me that labor is only viewed as property once it is paid for, and then it becomes the property of the one buying it, never the one selling it. I think our default moral model for employment is slavery.)
I suspect if pushed on the matter, Ryan would clearly get that. But the GOP has so bought into the language of heroic individuals — especially heroic capitalists battling the evil forces of predatory, regulatory government — that attempting to acknowledge the social grounding of entrepreneurialism is a form of socialism. Or perhaps even communism. Who ends up buying the goods and services provided by the heroic individual capitalist is then something of a mystery. 

God is Not With You This Day

For some reason, I cannot help but remember this Bible passage from the 35th chapter of 2 Chronicles when I think of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reports that he is pressing for some kind of unilateral Israeli military attack on Iran, possibly to influence the U.S. election:

(20) After all this, when Josiah had prepared the temple, Neco king of Egypt went up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates and Josiah went out to meet him. (21) But he sent envoys to him, saying, “What have we to do with each other, king of Judah? I am not coming against you this day, but against the house with which I am at war. And God has commanded me to hurry. Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you.” (22) Nevertheless, Josiah did not turn away from him, but disguised himself in order to fight with him. He did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God, but came to fight in the plain of Megiddo. (23) And the archers shot King Josiah. And the king said to his servants, “Take me away, for I am badly wounded.” (24) So his servants took him out of the chariot and carried him in his second chariot and brought him to Jerusalem. And he died and was buried in the tombs of his fathers. All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. (25) Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah; and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a rule in Israel; behold, they are written in the Laments. (2 Chronicles 35:2-25, ESV)

There is no obvious analogy to draw — Egypt was not at war or even actively hostile to Judah in the Bible account, while Iran is actively hostile to Israel, and Iran’s resources and reach were nothing compared to that of Egypt’s at the time. 
Except that what strikes me here is the portrayal of King Josiah of Judah’s absolute recklessness. He need not have picked a fight with Pharaoh Neco (who ended up choosing several of his successors, according to the Chronicles account). In many ways, this is a stunning account. (The version in 2 Kings lacks the detail, merely saying that Josiah joined battle with Neco at Megiddo as the Egyptian army was on its way to do battle with Assyria.) Josiah was the good king — the priest Hilkiah finds and reads the 
Book of Moses, and Josiah leads the people of Judah in repenting, celebrating the passover in a way it had not been kept

… in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet. None of the kings of Israel had kept such a passover as was kept by Josiah… (2 Chronicles 35:18, ESV)

So, far all his adherence to the covenant (something I don’t credit Netanyahu with either), the account that Josiah rode out at the head of his army to fight Egypt when no fight was needed, when the Pharaoh of Egypt wondered what was itching Josiah’s so that he had to wage war, and that the voice of Pharaoh  was the voice of God telling him to go home — those are big deals in this account. Josiah was so itching to fight Egypt that he “disguised himself” (“donned [his armor] to fight him” in the JPS Tanakh) to lead his army out to fight. That’s strange behavior for a good king, one who understood the importance of the teaching of Moses and the right worship of God.
That’s what makes me think of Benjamin Netanyahu right now. I’ve never liked the man, not since he was Israel’s spokesman in the United States in the early 1990s. I’ve never met him. But he seems to me like the kind of man who would pick a fight, a senseless and stupid fight, without any appreciation of the consequences. And he’d even work hard at picking that fight. Simply to fight. 
Big difference, though. If he picks a fight, he won’t die on that battlefield.

Take the Time to Listen

When I was little, one of my great loves was the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. I discovered the CBSRMT the winter after we moved to California in 1977, and almost every night, I would curl up with my radio and listen (and usually fall asleep) beginning at 9 p.m.

Radio programming, like television, was a hit and miss affair. Some old radio shows have worn well, and some have not. The same was true of the CBSRMT. It was not always good. In fact, sometimes it was pretty awful. But it filled my ten and 11-year-old imagination well. And it was mine, space away from my parents and the awfulness that was school.

In 2009, Jennifer and I bought the whole series, which is available on DVD. Informally available, I think (carefully culled from recordings made by fans). But still for sale. While some episodes have had the commercials and newscasts stripped from them, some have not. And it’s fun, listening to CBS hourly news bulletins from 1974 or 1977.

But the commercials can be fun, too. I’d forgotten that the Mormons had blanketed the country with radio and teevee adverts in the 1970s (and early 1980s, I think). And I’d forgotten as well that the Franciscans also ran some commercials. Well, not really commercials. More like public service announcements. The kind of thing that people were going to spend money on in the 1970s, and haven’t spent money on since. (I recall Lutheran adverts too, come to think of it, but I may be wrong.)

This is one of several LDS Church adverts. It focuses on some significant LDS Church themes, but the underlying theme here is family. Make time to listen is, here, to also make time for family.

This in some ways could almost be the same advert, or at least serve the same purposes, as the above advert. No, that’s not quite it. It’s a mirror image of the above.  Tired of faking it, thinking that faking it would accomplish his goals, the speaker in this advert discovers that he finally gets the “everyday love” he wants be acknowledging his limitations and his finiteness too. He could be talking about anyone — coworkers, maybe — but it really sounds like he’s talking about his family. Or at least that’s how it feels:

By the late 1970s, there was less of this stuff on the radio, and by the early 1980s (the last year for the CBSRMT was 1982), it was gone completely. These folks advertised a lot well into the late 1970s, and it’s never really clear from their adverts who they are or what they believed.

It’s kind of odd to think that religious groups actually advertised, but I think was generally part of the whole “feel better about yourself” think that was drifting through the air in the early 1970s. I’m trying to imagine anyone doing this kind of thing today. It may be happening and I’m just not paying attention.

On Being Particular

One of the foundational elements, or so it seems, of much of Western thinking is the claim to universality — that ideas, principles and values are only morally legitimate if they apply to all human beings equally in all times and in all places. Kant was hardly unique in this (as he tried to distinguish universal Christianity from particular Judaism) — such was the result of many centuries of Christian thinking. Such universalism clearly informs medieval natural law theory, for example.

For good social democrats and secular humanists, the idea of the universal allegedly does away with all of the scandalous things that derive from particularism — racism, slavery, nationalism, militarism, all the abuse of human beings somewhat grounded in the “we are chosen and you are not” or “by dint of culture/civilization/technology/values, we are entitled to dominate or exclude you.” (Most conservative American Christians are good liberals in this regard.) I find this assertion both troubling and untrue, mostly because it ignores how universalism also entitles and empowers. “No one is free until everyone is free.” That may sound like liberation, but when it’s said by the powerful, it is an amazing justification for empire.

And universalism is an amazing justification for empire.

I don’t think it’s any stretch to say today that liberal nationalism is the world’s ruling ideal. It claims to be universal, and is claimed by many of adherents to be universal. By that, it is the direction history is inexorably taking humanity (and is morally superior to all previous social and governing arrangements), it is how all of the world’s people either desire to live or would desire to live if they could, and it supposedly leaves room for national and individual autonomy of sorts, for some amount of local difference. What liberal nationalism isn’t, at least in the eyes of its firmest believers, is a form of empire.

This is the last essay I’m going to write from Stanley Hauerwas’ latest book, War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity. Hauerwas believes it is imperative for Christians to abandon the conceit of universalism — and along with it, empire — and embrace the very particularism of God. In doing so, he spends so quality with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. Hauerwas writes:

Sacks acknowledges that his refusal to abandon the distinctive perspective of Judaism means some will brand him a “tribalist.” Yet he argues that the very universalism that many assume to be the antithesis to the resurgence of tribalism, or worse terrorism, is an inadequate account of the human condition. A global culture may bring about much good, but from Sacks’ perspective, such cultures, particularly when they take the form of empires, do much harm because they fail to be capable of acknowledging difference. That Sacks should distrust the universal pretensions of empires is not surprising, for, as he observes, Judaism was born as a protest against empire. (p. 118)

Hauerwas examines the narrative many Christians (and more than a few Jews) tell about the Tower of Babel, noting that “for Sacks, Babel represents a turning point in history. For after Babel, God, who had first made a covenant with all creation, chooses to call out one people that they may be a witness to God’s will for all people.” (p. 118) Judaism is itself a very particular endeavor, a message addressed to a very particular people.

Let’s examine this in the light of the Decalogue, the teaching given to Israel in the wilderness. Throughout Christian history, the Ten Commandments (or at least the second table) have been seen as a kind-of universal natural law for all humanity. Things most people believe, more or less, and that are therefore somehow written on human hearts or somehow inscribed on human souls. (That this discussion took place in medieval Christian Europe should give some pause to these claims.) The Ten Commandments are good rules for living, then. Rules all people can and should follow. Because they just make sense.

But do they? If they make sense, why did Israel’s God wait to give this teaching to Israel in the wilderness of Sinai after yanking Israel out of Egypt? Aren’t these good rules for Egypt, too? In fact, if they were good rules for humanity, a guide to righteous and upright living, why didn’t God just sit down with Pharaoh and tell him “Inscribe these on stella across your land, so that all the people may know how to live.” I don’t much like asking this kinds of questions. But I also believe the story of scripture tells us something, and we don’t have the story I outlined above. We have a very different story. God gave this teaching to a people God had just formed, formed in trauma,  a people God had just rescued and redeemed (but in a way none of them had asked for).

The Ten Commandments are not a teaching given to all humanity. They are not meant to be posted in classrooms and in front of country courthouses. They are not universal guides to living upright and good, moral lives. God did not give the Ten Commandments to all humanity. God gave them to Israel, and by dint of our being grafted into Israel through Jesus Christ, to the church. They are an attempt by God to show those of us who have been called to be God’s people what it means to live in relationship with the God who called us and gathers us. And with each other. It is not our adherence to the teaching that makes us God’s people; the calling and gathering by God comes first.

And because God makes us God’s people, we cannot be “ungathered” through our own efforts. Whether we adhere to the teaching or not does not unmake us God’s people. Scripture clearly tells the story of consequences for failing or refusing to adhere to the teaching of God (conquest and exile), but none of that undoes God’s calling as us God’s people. The Bible is also clear that as time goes on, and as God’s people live in and with the consequences of things, God continually comes to meet them, and to change how the promises of God are realized in, for and with God’s people.

But God’s people Israel-Church never, never stop being God’s people. God won’t have it.

That, however, is not how empire works. Or human universalism. Unity and gathering are not the product of God’s work, but of human work. Hauerwas writes that the Christian answer to Babel is traditonally Pentecost:

Christians there have gone into the world with missionary zeal convinced that they possess the truth that all people desire even if they have not yet realized it. The political form this presumption took is called Constantinianism, which has taken many different forms, but [Ernst] Troeltsch’s claim for the inseparability of Christianity and Europe is as good an example as one could want for one of its most recent incarnations. 

It is, or course, hard to know which came first, that is, the presumption that the Christian faith represents universal knowledge that only needs to be explained to those who are not yet Christian, or the politics of empire. Either way it is now clear that Christian presumption of universality either as knowledge qua knowledge or as politics is — or at least should be — over. This does not mean I believe the Christian faith is not true, but that what it means for it to be true cannot be secured by a theory of truth more determinative than the faith itself. (p. 120-121)

Pentecost doesn’t undo what God did in confusing human speech at Babel. Rather, it changes what difference means. Difference, when we approach neighbors in love and vulnerability, becomes a way for Christians to know and encounter neighbors. “Pentecost has restored Babel not by mitigating the diversity granted by Babel but by creating a people who have learned how to be patient, how to be at peace, how to listen in a world of impatient violence.” (p. 132)

Christians will do ourselves or our neighbor little good by trying to convince those who do not share our story that we also can be liberal cosmopolitans. Rather, we must by what we are: the church of Jesus Christ. For if that church is not the anticipation of the peace God will for all people then we are without hope. To sustain that peace, to care for the stranger when all strangers cannot be cared for, to know how to go on in the face of our suffering, the suffering of those we love and the suffering of those we do not know, is possible because we believe God abandons no one. Our belief in God’s persistence takes the form of a story which receives us as strangers and destines us to be friends. 

The Christian word for universality is “catholic.” Indeed that way of putting the matter can be misleading because it gives the impression that “catholic” is another way of saying “universal.” But catholic is not the name of a logical category or philosophical position. It is the name of a people sent into the world to discover places and people whose difference is a necessary condition for self-recognition. Indeed the very presumption we can identify something called the world depends on a people who have been separated from the world to be of service to the world. What the church offers is the patience and the humility learned through the gospel, which teaches us how to live at peace although we cannot write the history of humankind. (p.130-131)

The church “is the name of a people sent into the world to discover places and people whose difference is a necessary condition for self-recognition.”I think I’m going to leave it there.

The Essential Intolerance of Liberalism

Abdal Hakim Murad, writing at the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s website, has a fascinating essay on the conflict in Europe between secularism and Islam (though other conservative religions are not immune either):

Europe may be economically inclusive, and passionately liberal and libertarian, but ultimately, to be itself, it must be exclusive of non-Christians, and of Muslims above all. The old Crusading cry of “Christians are right, and pagans are wrong,” has been modified by replacing the “Christians” with gay activists and human rights commissioners.

Murad asks: “to be Europeans, must we be liberals?” He then notes that there is a fairly broad consensus among European liberals in favor of banning Muslim headscarves for women and preventing the building of minarets on masjids (and other overt acts of public worship and private belief). He goes on to describe this trend, using France’s National Front as an example:

In fact, it is probably the case that the so-called far-right parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s Fronte Nationale, are in fact not far to the right of the political spectrum at all. They are best seen as coercive liberal parties, their social and fiscal policies placing them somewhere in the centre-right of the political spectrum, but so passionate about the unique truth of liberalism that they seek to punish those who fail to comply with present liberal social beliefs.

Coercive liberalism. A liberalism which cannot tolerate dissent of “liberal values” and ideals. In the case of secular liberal Europe, Murad notes those values are feminism and gay rights, and strangely enough, Murad finds that much of the support for secular right wing parties in Europe tends to be strongest among the secular center-left. 
I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow of this article — read it for yourself — but Murad asks a very interesting question of liberals and liberalism, one that needs to be asked (because liberals, assuming their own tolerance, are not going to ask it):

In the [UK’s] Muslim schools, where citizenship training is apparently in even greater disarray, Ofted says: “We must not allow recognition of diversity to become apathy in the face of any challenge to our coherence as a nation. We must be intolerant of intolerance.” 

Here, I think, the official finger rests on the Achilles heel of secular liberal ethics. If we must be intolerant of intolerance, then can liberalism tolerate anything other than itself? If Europe defines citizenship in terms of adherence to a set moral template, with all else defined as intolerable, how can Europe ever positively experience real difference, which more often than not is bound up with good, or bad, religion?

I think this is an important to question to ask, and not just of Europeans. Can liberalism tolerate anything other than itself? In effect, liberalism — especially when a governing ideology — demands all allegiance to the secular nation-state (Murad’s evaluation of Germany’s citizenship exam in the essay is interesting in this regard) as the one true thing held in common. (As Murad notes: “European liberals – with their Enlightenment, civil society, democratic institutions and human rights codes – sometimes seem to self-define as a secular Messiah, willing and ready to save the world. To resist is, by implication, to align oneself with an unregenerate, sinful humanity.”) Liberalism’s acceptance of “diversity” or toleration of “difference” is not real, especially when that difference or diversity is fundamental. Liberalism’s acceptance of difference and embrace of diversity only goes so far as all of those included accept the principles and values of liberalism and submit themselves to liberalism, including the state. Thus, those who either fail or refuse to conform are marginalized or excluded, sometimes violently.

This is what Liberalism does, and that makes it no different from any other means of organizing people, communities and polities.

Murad is right to call liberalism a religion. And a particularly intolerant one at that. (He rightly also links that historically to the intolerance of real religious difference in Christendom.) While things are not quite this way in the United States, we live with a version of this. (Indeed, as Americans, we live with a “religious” version of this in so-called Conservative Christians.) I wonder, after reading this piece, just how much liberal Christianity’s embrace of “tolerance and diversity” is really a grafting of Liberalism into or onto (or, more likely, instead of) an understanding of the purpose of the church, and how dogmatic this “tolerance and diversity” really are. One of the reasons I believe the Liberal Churches are so comfortable with secularism is that they form their moral templates with the same materials that secular liberals do — in this case, feminism and gay rights.

Which means as well that Liberal Churches in America are also going to be comfortable with Liberalism’s essential intolerance and exclusion of anything that isn’t (or isn’t seen to be) liberal. (And I think Liberalism’s fundamental intolerance was on full display in the complete nonsense over Chik-fil-A in the last couple of weeks.)

UPDATE: Scott Galupo at The American Conservative has some things to say about the nonsense at Chik-fil-A and an American element of the Liberal creed he calls “Make Money and Mind Your Own Business”:

This is the statement of belief about which nearly everyone in our pluralistic society can agree. It’s not the “thickest” or morally expressive of credos, but it has proved durable. Free-market conservatives are as invested in it as progressive liberals are. The assimilation of blacks in the last century into mainstream American economic life was perhaps its greatest challenge as well as triumph. We told ourselves this: Our constitutional order was only partially flawed — and it was flawed in a convenient way. The problem was not its fundamental morality but rather that it excluded black citizens from their right to Make Money and Mind Their Own Business. The economic liberty of whites to do as they pleased with their private property was circumscribed. But federal coercion was the price we had to pay to uphold the legitimizing promise of the credo. 

The assimilation of gays is turning out to be a more devilish task. On one side are traditionalist conservatives who believe, not without justification, that opposing same-sex marriage does not violate the neutralist credo. In this view, gays are free to make money and to live free from persecution. That they may not marry is merely a function of the immutable nature of an institution designed for a man and a woman. Traditionalists are saying, You are free to live as you please — but on the question of marriage, our hands are tied.

The logic of liberal neutrality often leads to liberal affirmation. Gays are no longer content to make money and mind their own business. They seek a broader validation. And the credo can’t give it to them. 

Eventually, traditionalists are going to bend — because it’s in the nature of liberalism to make them bend. 

In the meantime, tempers will flare.

Now Here’s A Youth Gathering!

In what looks like old home week for a group of Comecon nations, young people from China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Russia and North Korea are meeting in North Korea to, well, raise a flag, lay a floral basket at the base of a statue of Kim Il Sung (no visit to North Korea is complete without it!), splash in the ocean, make sand castles on the beach, and learn about each other while they do their thing.

Pyongyang, August 4 (KCNA) — Schoolchildren from various countries began their camping at the Songdowon International Children’s Camp, located on the east coast of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 

They spend pleasant times at the seaside with swimming, boating, sports and amusement games, etc, getting together. 

A camper from China told KCNA: 

“It is a big fortune for me to come here. I’ve got to know a lot of things about the culture and history of Korea. 

I am thankful to respected Marshal Kim Jong Un for the loving care given to us campers.”
A camper from Mongolia said: 

“Days here in the camp are so enjoyable. This is the first time for me to see the sea.
It is very funny to play with campers from different countries. I want to come here again in the future.” 

Hong Jin Hyok, a 13-year-old student at Kumsong Secondary School No.1, said:
“Now I feel refreshed after having a sea bathing. During the camping, I will further train my body and deepen my knowledge to be an able man for the country.”

I cannot tell from the video whether there are kids from countries other than what was listed in the video. (Note the Korean Central News Agency: please, please, please, please, please, please set your website up so I can link to your videos!) But no group here marches as well as the North Koreans. Not the Russians, not the Chinese, and certainly not the Mongols.

And something creepy. While this is hardly a communist youth gathering, it looks for all the world like on of the Russian youth groups have a rifle muzzle and bayonet pointing upward on their shirts, along with a red star and some kind of olive branch thing. There are several Russian youth groups here, and only one of the groups sports a bayonet on their shirts. (Whew!) While most of the Russians were having too much fun to march well, the young man above (image taken from the 1:16 mark in the video) really got into marching the youth gathering flag out and being part of the group of four kids who hoisted it.

Two of the countries whose youth have come to North Korea.

Two of the Russian groups. 

One happy young camper from Mongolia. No bayonet on this young man’s tee shirt!

UPDATE: Ooops, my bad. It appears the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was never a member of Comecon.

SECOND UPDATE: I am looking at another video, and it appears that the Vietnamese youth group is wearing tee shirts that say, in English, “Good Morning Vietnam.” I cannot tell for sure, but if it’s true, what’s THAT all about?

Why Justice is a Bad Idea (-OR- What the Justice of God Really Is)

One of the many controversial things Stanley Hauerwas has said and written is “justice is a bad idea.” It’s a statement I have emphatically agreed with ever since I first read it, especially as a critique of progressive protestantism. In War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, Hauerwas does the best job of explaining very simply what he means by the above statement and more importantly, what he thinks God’s justice actually looks like:

[M]y suggestion that justice is a bad idea was meant to call into question abstract accounts of justice often associated with liberal political theory, which assumes a just social order is possible without the people who constitute that order being just. My worry about appeals to justice in advanced capitalist societies has been that such appeals can blind us to the ways our lives may be implicated in fundamental forms of injustice. 

However, my deeper worry about appeals to justice has been theological. Reinhold Niebuhr, in the interest of making Christianity politically responsible, argued that in matters of politics Jesus must be left behind, because the political work necessary for the achievement of justice requires coercion and even violence. For Niebuhr, “justice” names the arrangements necessary to secure more equitable forms of life when we cannot love all neighbors equally. Good Barthian that I am, I worry that justice so understood becomes more important that the justice of God found in the cross and resurrection of Christ. (p. 100)

Hauerwas then draws heavily from Dan Bell’s essay “Jesus, the Jews, and the Politics of God’s Justice,” noting that if Jesus is the Justice of God, then Christians cannot help be be passionate for justice because “we are in agreement that God does justice and so should we.” However:

… [Bell] thinks such agreement is part of the problem, just to the extent that the Christian enthusiasm for justice distorts our reading of Scripture. He is particularly critical of an approach he characterizes as “social justice advocacy” for how its adherents approach Scripture. For according to Bell, advocates of social justice read scripture for values and principles they think crucial to motivate Christians, in Bell’s words, “to get off their pews, leave the stained glass bliss of the congregation and its liturgy behind, and go out into the world to do justice.” 

Such an approach, Bell notes, presents justice as an external standard to which Christianity is accountable. Indeed, it is assumed, and therefore it is also assumed that justice can be understood apart from Christian theologian convictions and practices. Human rights, for example, are defended in a manner that renders irrelevant what Christians believe or do not believe about God. Such a view of justice, as well as the approach to Scripture associated with justice so conceived, Bell argues, is determined by the modern political context. 

That context, moreover, is one in which the church is assumed to be apolitical and, therefore, not relevant for determining how to know as well as do justice. Such a view of justice thus reinforces the politics of modernity, in which “the church is consigned to the role of cultural custodian of values rightly cordoned off from political practice, which finds its highest expression and guarantor in the nation-state.” Desperate to show the social relevance of the church, Christians ironically underwrite in the name of justice an account of social relations that presumes a privatized account of Christian convictions and the church. (p. 101-102)

Hauwerwas is also very critical of how Jesus is used in the “social justice advocacy” approach:

Jesus is relegated to being a motivator to encourage Christians to get involved in struggles for justice. Even if Jesus is thought to have practiced justice in his ministry, he is appealed to as a symbol or example. What really matters is not Jesus, but justice. This understanding of justice not only displaced Jesus, but also displaces the Jews as crucial for determining what we mean by justice. Social justice advocates often direct attention to the call for justice made by the prophets, but the justice for which the prophets called is often assumed to be universal in a manner that has no particular or intrinsic relation to the Jewish people. (p. 102)

This does a fairly good job of summing things up. The problem he — and I — have with justice talk is threefold:

  1. Justice is an abstract idea unmoored from the concrete practices of liturgy and daily living.
  2. The calls for justice in scripture are abstract an universal — God is speaking to all humanity — rather than God speaking to a very particular people in a very particular place in very particular circumstances.
  3. Justice as understood is heavily reliant on the exercise of state power and state violence (or at least appeals to state action) to reorder the world in a more”just” way.

Hauerwas spends a couple of paragraphs dealing with the more theologically conservative approach that Bell calls “justice as justification,” which centers God’s saving act on the individual who either accepts or rejects God’s saving work in Christ. But his strongest critique is of liberal or progressive Christianity.

I will not spend much time detailing Hauerwas’ critique of rights language, especially the language of human rights. In his Gifford lectures, Hauerwas destroyed my libertarianism by describing the rise of individual rights not as resistance to the state, but as emanating from the expanding power of the state. Every right is actually a claim, and when the nation-state has a monopoly on force, coercion and violence, every claim empowers the state to act as the agent of the claim. More individual rights means more state power! (I’ve read the argument elsewhere, and I agree with it.) Hauerwas notes that human rights as constructed are not significantly grounded in either scripture or canon law (despite constant attempts to plant them there) and in any case, are universalized in a way to make the secularly intelligible in a way that makes the story of God encounter with God’s people in scripture irrelevant.

So what is justice for Hauerwas? Does he even have a vision of justice? He does. Jesus is the justice of God. Citing Bell again, Hauerwas states clearly:

[A] text like Matthew 25:31-45 makes clear that the works of mercy are not principles or values that then must be translated into a universal or secular vision of justice. Rather, they summon us to participate in God’s redemption by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harboring the stranger, visiting the sick, ministering to prisoners, and burying the dead. Such is the way, Bell suggests, that we learn what it means for Jesus to be the justice of God. (p. 115)

We who are church, as the body of Christ in the world, are God’s justice, insofar as we are joined to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism. We are called not just to do, but to be God’s justice. In the debate over national health care and the insurance mandate, for example, rather than lobby for state policies, it would have been better for the church — if the church were honestly concerned about healing the sick — to actually care for the sick, rather than demand the reorienting of society in ways we believe to be more “just” (including demands for the exercise of state power, which always includes the possibility of state violence).

For Hauerwas, the best example he can find for how justice is actually done is in Hans Reinder’s Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology and Ethics:

Reinders observes that much good has been done in the name of disability rights for creating new opportunities, as well as institutional space, for the disabled. But such an understanding of justice is not sufficient if we listen to the disabled. They do not seek to be tolerated or even respected because they have rights. Rather they seek to share their lives with us, and they want us to share our lives with them. In short, they want us to be claimed and to claim one another in friendship. (p. 115)

God has not created, or even called for a theory of justice, Hauerwas writes. Rather, “God has called into the world a people capable of transgressing the borders of the nation-state to seek the welfare of the downtrodden.” We are God’s justice when we cross boundaries, when we meet strangers and make them friends, when we share our lives with people and welcome them into our lives. That, and not abstract ideals or a partisan political program, is justice. And we’re not called to make others do the work when we are unwilling. Or to rewrite the rules of society so it will somehow be “easier” to do this. We are called to do this very hard work ourselves. And without any regard to the rules or structure or order of the society in which we live.