Three More Reasons to Ditch the GOP

Unbearable as the experience often is, I can’t resist peeking in on news related to the Republican presidential nomination race from time to time, and each time, it seems, I find another damning testimony which reveals how tenuous the connection between the GOP and anything recognizably Christian is becoming.  Perhaps it is now not so much the party of the “Christian Right” as the “Cold-Hearted Pelagian Right.”  Here are three examples I’ve saved from the stories of the past couple weeks:

The new media favourite of the race, Herman Cain, whose chief qualification for governing the most powerful nation on earth seems to be that he ran a pizza chain once, had this to say about the recent Wall Street protests: “Don’t blame Wall Street.  Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself. . . . It is not a person’s fault because they succeeded. It is a person’s fault if they failed. And so this is why I don’t understand these demonstrations and what is it that they’re looking for.”  

Excuse me?  Not that long ago, even Republican leaders had been willing to join in the chorus of hatred against Wall Street, against a banking system that is fantastically rich and incorrigibly corrupt, and which, after nearly leading the whole world into the abyss, has happily resumed its intemperate ways.  And not only does Cain have the guts to defend them, but he wants to tell everyone who hasn’t managed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become super-wealthy, that this is simply their own fault and they don’t deserve any sympathy.  Survival of the fittest, you know.  If you don’t have it in you to succeed in this dog-eat-dog world, then you’re not worth the world’s time, and should resign yourself to being trampled underfoot.  

But Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”


Meanwhile, Rick Perry has been having a rough time of it lately because he has dared to show any sympathy for the scum of the earth.  Perry, of course, presides over a state with a large number of  “illegal immigrants.”  His state has passed a law that decides to treat the children of these impoverished workers as state residents, with access to Texas’s lower in-state college tuition rates.  Perry argued, sensibly enough, that the alternative is to deprive children of illegal immigrants of the opportunity for an education, thus increasing the likelihood that they will become a costly drag on society, and that “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.”  Unfortunately for him, most Republicans do not, it seems, have hearts.  Strategists and pollsters say this is a “90-10 issue” (against Perry) for Republican voters, and voter testimonials confirmed this picture.  One declared that she liked Perry “until I heard about him giving all these kids a free ride.  I absolutely, positively disagree with any benefits that these people are getting, and if it were up to me, I’d round them all up and sweep them out of here.”  Others were turned off by Perry’s disinclination to back the building of a fence along the entire US-Mexico border to keep these workers out.  

But Jesus said, “”When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”


On one front, though, Perry has shown a hard enough heart to lure Republican voters: capital punishment. In a recent Bloomberg article, Margaret Carlson reports how, “In a debate in September at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, moderator Brian Williams tried to pose a question to Perry, beginning: ‘Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you — ’ Before he could finish, Williams was drowned out by lusty cheers and piercing whistles from the audience.”  And she comments acidly, “It’s one thing to support the death penalty. It’s quite another to relish it like fans cheering a winning touchdown.” 

After discussing the troubling record of modern death row cases, Carlson tells us Perry’s equally disturbing response to the question: “Perry confidently told Williams that he had never lost sleep over any of the 234 people executed during his tenure as governor,” and goes on to comment, “It’s an alarming statement if false, a contemptible one if true….It’s worth losing sleep over life-and-death decisions. It’s what presidents, and other moral beings, do.”

But Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”


(NB: In each of these stories, especially the last, I am at the mercy of how the media is portraying things.  It is possible that each of these stories has been reportedly falsely or one-sidedly, and if so, I welcome the corrections of anyone who follows this news more thoroughly than I do.)

Retributive Justice–further thoughts

Brian Auten over at the Boars Head Tavern has drawn attention to my previous post and asked a very salient question about the latter portion: 

“How does this work if it’s about “redress of a wrong suffered” as well as innocents who are in ongoing-but-perhaps-not-immediately-clear danger?   That is, what happens when you come upon the someone who killed your mama three years ago, and you know that same someone is, or really appears to be, planning to kill all of the other mamas in your neighborhood?  I just wonder about the frequency of situations, particularly regarding state actions, where “redress of a wrong suffered” isn’t bound up in all sorts of connected concerns over the protection of innocents and tranquillitas ordinis.”

Somewhat bizarrely, the ensuing discussion of my post over there has centered merely on the question of whether in my sentence “However, I’m with Paul on this one, who had no hesitation in calling himself “the chief of sinners” even when he clearly was not” I am “explaining away Scripture”  Be that as it may, Auten’s question is a very good one, and one that I half-hoped someone would raise.

Essentially, what he’s saying is that, in political practice, the distinction between retributive justice and what we might call “protective justice” (presumably there is a proper term for this, but not knowing it, I shall coin this one) tends to break down.  This objection requires some very careful thinking through, and here’s a first attempt.


For clarity, I’d like to distinguish here between foreign policy and domestic policy.  In foreign policy, the argument would run something like this: the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor.  Ok, there’s nothing we can do about that now–we can’t protect Pearl Harbor after the fact.  So would taking the war to them thus count as retributive justice?  On my account, would I have to say that we could only legitimately fight the Japanese *while* they were bombing Pearl Harbor, and then would have to wait until they attacked again somewhere else before we could legitimately resist again?  No, I would not want to say that, not as a general principle at any rate.  That would be to artificially break down a “war” into a series of isolated engagements, pretending that one could not speak of a “state of war” existing between those engagements.  If someone has opened hostilities, and certainly appears to be planning to continue hostilities, to continue to attack innocent people unjustly, then one can certainly take action against them as an act of “protective justice” to the extent necessary to prevent their further attacks (note that this does not mean that “preemptive strike” in which one claims license to act based on the mere assumption that they will attack, is justified).  This would be the only basis, in my mind, upon which you could seek to justify our war in Afghanistan (although I am highly skeptical that in this particular case, that justification ends up working; and in any case, the war has often rhetorically been justified in terms of retribution).  On the other hand, if it appeared that the enemy, having stricken their wicked blow, was ready for their part to go on their way and leave you alone, then I think Christian political ethics would require that you let them do that–to take the war to them at this point would be motivated by retribution.  Now, one will say, “Yeah, but if you do that, you’ll simply encourage them (or other bad guys) to attack again another time, or to attack someone else, convinced that they can get away with it.”  Let’s hold that thought, and return to it, since the following point relates to it.

Now, what about in the domestic sphere?  A criminal kills your mama.  Three years later, he’s found.  Should he be executed, now, upon principles of retributive justice?  If we say no, then what about the fact that, as Auten says, he might go around killing other people’s mamas?  Does retributive justice equal protective justice, in this case?  Well, I suppose it depends.  If he is in fact in a mad rampage around the neighborhood, systematically killing people’s mamas, then he needs to be stopped, no doubt about it; hopefully this need not involve killing him, but perhaps it might.  But put this way, it is clearly an example of protective justice–nothing retributive about it.  And more often than not, incarceration will do the trick, offering protection without retribution (not that I think incarceration should be our first choice, far from it; but it may serve as a last resort).  So this is not, I think, Auten’s point.  Rather, I expect he has in mind the principle of “deterrence.”  Someone does something wicked and violent, and unless they are punished somehow, others will be tempted to do the same thing.  It is quite interesting, actually, that this is the primary basis upon which the death penalty is now justified–it is a utilitarian argument.  Historically, this argument did play some role, but people were often comfortable to speak in terms of the duty of the state to exact justice in a quite abstract sense.  Nowadays, people shy away from that, and argue from deterrence.  Now, my problem is that in fact, when the Old Testament talks of retributive punishment, it does not seem to have any interest in deterrence.  The death penalty is a matter of purging the land of the one who has dishonored God.  It is indeed a cultic matter as much as it is a merely judicial matter.  Other penalties often have similar logics.  So I am quite hesitant to resort to the principle of deterrence.  My sense is that deterrence (and here is my pacifistic side speaking) represents too much of an attempt to take matters into our own hands, rather than trusting in God; represents too much of a sense that the most obvious and most forceful gesture is necessarily the most effective.  Here, I want to embrace the counter-logic of Christ, who seeks to show that a non-violent response can often bring the enemy to his knees much more effectively than a violent one.  I suspect that, with a little imagination, we could find much more effective ways of preventing people from murdering people than the death penalty.  

Of course, there’s certainly other kinds of “retribution” besides the death penalty.  No doubt part of what Auten had in mind was the need for punishments of infractions of all sorts of laws, as deterrents to maintain order in society (say, imprisonment for assault or theft).  Of course, I have far less reservations about what we might call “non-violent retribution,” but I would still like to ask whether we could not confine ourselves to a penal code that was restitutive and therapeutic rather than retributive.  “Restitutive” would mean the requirement that any harm done to another’s person or property would require repayment or service (with the goal of reconciliation), as opposed to fines or imprisonment.  “Therapeutic” would mean penalties aiming to induce discipline and overcome vice in the offending individual, rather than simply to make him suffer “because he deserved it.”  Obviously, it is the inability of the death penalty to restore anything to an offended party, or to be of any benefit to the guilty party, that makes it a pure example of retributive justice, and hence so objectionable. 

Now, to come back briefly to the sphere of foreign policy.  The remarks I made above about trusting God instead of taking matters into our own hands and about non-violent responses often being more effective in the long run than violent ones certainly apply here.  However, this doesn’t mean being stupid, and it doesn’t mean mere “appeasement.”  A bad guy attacks someone, and gets away with it.  Does that mean we go and punish him to teach him a lesson, and to deter him and others from attacking anyone else?  No, I don’t think so.  However, we can diplomatically isolate him.  We can prepare strong defenses or make an alliance to dissuade him from attacking again.  So what I am saying does not mean an abdication of government or a suicidal foreign policy.  It does mean, however, that we work to end the cycle of provocations and paybacks that fuel so many of the world’s conflicts by showing a willingness to renounce vengeance and offer reconciliation, thus depriving our enemies of martyrs and recruits.  


Anyway, there’s a stab at it.  Clearly, this raises at least as many questions as it answers, but that seems to always be the nature of ethics.

Counsels or Commandments: The Protestant Line through the Heart

In his Loci Communes, Philipp Melanchthon turns at chapter 8 to address “the Distinction of Commandment and Counsel,” which as mentioned in my previous post, has been growing on my mental radar of late as a key player in my ethico-political ambiguities.  Most intriguingly, though, Melancthon turns specifically to consider this distinction in terms of the lawfulness of private property, an issue I have been reading and writing on for the past several months.   

My bold, tentative thesis that emerges from this brief passage: it was the Protestant dissolution of the tension between the commandments and counsels that naturalized the moral justification of private property and thus paved the way for the development of the capitalist principle of absolute private property rights, in which one’s freedom to do entirely as one wished with what one owned preceded and relativised any legal or moral claim that could be made on one’s property.  Bold thesis, right?  (If you have any idea what I’m talking about, at least.)  I’ll sketch out the background of the distinction of commandment and counsel, and the Protestant reaction to it, in this post, and in the following one, I’ll develop how Melancthon applies it to the question of property.

So, let’s take a tour through 1,500 years of Christian ethics. 

Before the coming of Christ, we have the moral law, which is, as the WSC so eloquently puts it, “summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments.”  Scholastic thinkers identify the Ten Commandments also as a summary form of the natural law, engrained in mankind from creation, and in principle knowable (though not necessarily successfully known) by all men.  The principles of natural law serve as the basis not only for moral living, but for political justice.  We see this in the Old Testament, where the civil laws of Israel are given as elaborations and case-law applications of the basic principles of the moral law.  

Enter Jesus, saying, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you,” and issuing a new set of moral norms that seem to go beyond those of the Old Testament (and of natural law).  Now, we can hedge and qualify and say a lot about how the Sermon on the Mount, for instance does not overturn the Law, but fulfills it–it continues and intensifies the original trajectory, rather than simply contradicting it.  But be all that as it may, it does seem to go further in its call for holy living.  Where the old law (and the natural law) permitted–or indeed, one might say mandated–a just use of force in repelling force, Jesus seems to call us to a love that overcomes evil with good, that turns the other cheek.  But does this mean it is no longer permissible to defend ourselves, for instance?  Certainly the earliest Christianity carried with it a strong radical, perfectionist edge, but as it settled down to life in history, and grappled with the responsibilities involved in running a Christian state, the tension began to be felt quite sharply, the impossibility of using the evangelical law as the law for everyone.  

The neat solution devised (this is of course very oversimplified, glossing over a millenium’s worth of debates) was the distinction of commandments and counsels, which said, more or less, that although it was perfectly lawful and not sinful to live in accordance with the basic principles of the moral/natural law, it was even better, if possible, to follow the “counsels of perfection”–the extra moral demands of the evangelical law.  Melanchthon summarizes the definitions:

“A commandment is so called because it speaks of necessary obedience.  Everything that is contrary to the commandments is sin, and this brings eternal punishment if man is not converted to God.  A counsel is a doctrine, not a commandment; it does not demand a work, even though it praises the work as blameless and useful.” 

Three points of the evangelical law in particular were singled out by the medievals: non-violence, renunciation of personal property, and celibacy.  The monastic orders observed these, but most laymen were not expected to, and of course the political realm was not expected to operate according to these principles, but according to the natural law commandments.  This resulted in two levels of Christianity–first-class Christians, who observed the counsels, and second-class Christians, who observed merely the commandments.  Both were legit, but one was holier than the other.  Of course, it is not difficult to see how neatly this tied in with the emerging two-tier paradigm of nature and grace, with natural law governing laymen and the political sphere, and the law of grace governing the full-time Christians, so to speak.  


An unsatisfactory situation, no doubt, and one against which Luther forcefully reacted, rejecting the distinction between commandments and counsels, and insisting that all Christians were the same, and were bound to the same standards.   A short paragraph in Melanchthon’s discussion give some insight as to why: 

“First, it is obvious that our works cannot merit forgiveness of sins; so also are our works not perfection, for in this weak life we are still far from fulfilment of the law, and much sin, doubt and disorder remain in us, as Job 9:2 says, ‘No man is justified before God.’ Therefore it is empty blindness when men extol their own works as perfection, as if such works were a complete fulfilment of the divine law, and as if such holiness were higher than commanded works.”

In other words, since man is not justified by works, then what could it mean for the counsels to be better than the commandments?  They couldn’t contribute any justifying merit, and since for the Reformers, justification is the central question, there’s no sense in the distinction.

The Anabaptists took Luther to be saying, more or less, that all were bound to follow the counsels, and the commandments were out (although they did not accept celibacy as one of the counsels).  However, Luther quickly became alarmed by the radical, perfectionist, and legalistic direction that this led, and rejected Anabaptism as a false understanding of his teaching.  In his later work, he basically re-introduced the commandments/counsels distinction, but this time, internally and individually, instead of outwardly in the Christian community.  It was a line through the heart of each Christian, not through the Christian community.  All Christians were called to live outwardly in accord with the commandments, but to have their inner attitudes governed by the counsels.  All of this development thus far I have traced, more or less, in my series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount, which I never finished, but of which we could perhaps consider this a continuation.

The magisterial Reformation, following the later Luther, basically jettisons the counsels of perfection from the socio-political sphere, and lodges them merely in the inward motions of the Christian heart.  So, for instance, you not only may, but ought, to fight back with force (deadly force if necessary) against an aggressor, but with charity in your heart toward him all the while–you must use your outer fist, while turning your inner cheek.  What this means is that the laws of political ethics become not a baseline for preserving order, within which a fuller social ethics can be fostered by the Church, but become themselves the only standard of social ethics.   


A couple examples may clarify.  For Augustine, the laws ought to permit killing in self-defense, but Christian ethics ought not to allow it.  In On Free Choice of the Will, Book 1, he turns to discuss the subject.  Intriguingly, his opening opens the door to take the later Lutheran route, but promptly shuts it:

Augustine: First we ought to discuss, I think, whether there is any lust in the case where an attacking enemy or an assassin in ambush is killed for the sake of life, liberty, or chastity.  Evodius: How can I think that men lack lust for the things that they can lose against their will?  Or, if they cannot lose these things, what need is there to go as far as murdering a man for them?” 

Augustine, in common with Luther, recognizes that the key moral problem is of the inward lust, but whereas the magisterial Reformers at this point would answer Evodius by saying, “No, we can  act in this way toward the enemy without any accompanying lust in our hearts, but preserving all the while charity toward the aggressor and acting out of mere concern for justice,” Augustine concurs with Evodius–the outward action is the expression of the heart.  He and Evodius then go on to develop a careful justification for why, given that the action of violent self-defense is itself wrong, the laws may still justly permit it.  The magisterial Reformation, however, will conclude that not only should the laws permit such, but because they permit it, and are an expression of the natural law when they do so, that it is therefore morally right to use violent self-defense, and–here’s the kicker–morally negligent not to do so.  

Another example: Augustine famously argued in his letter to Macedonius for clemency toward convicted criminals.  While acknowledging that there was genuine justice in the penalties prescribed by law for criminals–including capital punishment–Augustine argued that nevertheless, it was even better and more Christlike, to pardon them if possible, and he maintained that the Church had a duty to intercede for such pardon and work for it.  In Bk. 4, ch. 14 of his Loci Communes, Peter Martyr Vermigli took Augustine to task for this argument in no uncertain terms, mounting a vigorous and unequivocal point-by-point refutation.  The gist of his argument (about which I have been planning to post for a year now; hopefully I will have a chance to discuss it fully in a later post) is that, since the laws are just in requiring the full penalty, based as they are on the natural law and the Old Testament, it would be unjust and therefore wrong for the magistrate to do anything other than impose the full penalty.  And it would therefore be unjust and wrong for any clergyman to exhort the magistrate to impose anything less than the full penalty of justice.  All of Augustine’s arguments drawn from the teaching of Christ Vermigli considers irrelevant–this evangelical law pertains only to the inward disposition of the heart.  So the magistrate must of course act with full charity and non-judgmentalness in his heart, but this should not in any way affect his actions.

This, I take it, is the fundamental move of Protestant ethics and political ethics, and, understandable as it is in reaction both to the Catholic two-class system and the Anabaptist legalism, I can’t help but consider it a very unsatisfactory move.  So, let’s turn in the next post to see how Melancthon develops this with respect to property.