Abortion and the Politics of Protest

In a recent piece for First Things On the Square, Kathryn Walker reviewed a book called Raised Right: How I Untangled my Faith from Politics by Alisa Harris.  I hadn’t so much as heard the book before, but my interest is certainly piqued now.  Harris, like so many others in my generation, finds herself, despite having been given a full-blown fundamentalist, pro-life, right-wing upbringing, having somehow wandered across the political divide, so that she is now unmistakably left-wing, though still, I take it, evangelically Christian.  In this book, she chronicles her journey and tries to explain why.  For a fuller summary of the book, I certainly recommend Walker’s excellent review; if I ever get around to reading it myself, perhaps I’ll offer my own review, but for now, I simply wanted to pick up on one interesting question that Walker raises.

Walker does not share Harris’s newfound sympathies for the Left, but she does at least give her a fair hearing, and grant that she may have some good points.  But for Walker, the most important issue is still abortion, and she can’t accept Harris’s rationale for minimizing that issue.  Harris remains pro-life, but has lost her sympathy for the pro-life movement, it’s foot-stomping and sign-waving, and wants to invest her effort into caring for women, rather than politicking.  But Walker asks toward the end of her review why Harris happily engages in sign-waving in protest against Bank of America—”she embraces public displays against injustice, and it’s hard to see any difference in the latter over the former ones, except for the causes themselves. And in this case, it’s not clear why corporate greed trumps infanticide in degrees of heinousness.”

Walker’s question set me pondering a bit, because I must confess I find myself feeling a lot like Harris at times.  Of course I still think abortion is a great evil, a heart-breaking crime against the defenceless children, and often against desperate mothers as well, who are pressured into it.  But I have so little sympathy left for the pro-life movement.  There, I said it.  I’ve admitted it.  I cannot make myself care all that much whether a candidate is pro-life, as a litmus test for voting for or against him.  Of course it’s relevant, but then, so are the candidate’s views on gasoline taxes.  I simply cannot get worked up about the issue as a political issue (though I can get worked up about the issue in other respects; I found the portrayal of abortion in Ides of March heart-rending).  But, I do get worked up about corporate greed.  I don’t sympathize with sign-waving abortion protesters, but I can be brought to sympathize with sign-waving Bank of America protesters.  Is there any good reason from this, or is it just some kind of hypocrisy or something worse? 

Well, there may be a few good reasons, or at least partial reasons, and I wanted to explore them.

There are, I suppose, two distinct issues, though I have elided them here.  One is protesting, the other politicking.  Protesting is of course generally political in its orientation, but is essentially indirect, seeking to influence the attitudes and the milieu within which political decisions are made.  By the latter, I mean direct lobbying for legislative, executive, or judicial action, crafting laws, promoting candidates with desirable positions on an issue and attacking candidates with undesirable positions.

Skeptics like myself (and I would take it Harris) doubt whether the politicking is a meaningful or useful way of advancing a pro-life agenda.  Certainly, prima facie it would seem to be misguided: (1) abortions were widespread in the US well before Roe v. Wade; (2) Roe v. Wade was a judicial decision, not a legislative one, and the judiciary is by far the most independent branch of our government, and the most difficult to influence through political action (rightly so); (3) empirically, it is hard to see that 39 years of feverish pro-life politics have yielded any significant gains.  Digging deeper, it seems like abortion is not really by its nature primarily a political issue.  Of course, legal systems have an obligation to protect life and prosecute murder, but legal systems can only function within a framework of broadly shared moral assumptions.  If a culture has reached the point where no one sees the problem with something, then trying to stop it by outlawing it is like spitting in the wind.  (Of course, this is oversimplistic—there are other less drastic ways of trying to legally limit abortion, which may be effective.)  But of course a second point to note here is that few people get abortions because they think it’s a perfectly fine thing to do.  I don’t know statistics, but my guess is that most women who get abortions don’t like the idea at all, but they’re frightened or pressured or desperate enough to do it anyway.  In such a case, making a law against it isn’t necessarily going to change many of their minds.  It might dissuade a lot of abortion doctors, but there will still be plenty willing to supply a black market.  

Contrariwise, it seems clear that political action is a meaningful and effective way of confronting economic injustice, particularly when that takes the form of large corporations engaging in dubious behaviour that prioritizes short-term profits over long-term considerations and the well-being of society.  I would argue that, normatively, regulation of justice in economic exchange and justice in distribution of goods is one of the core functions of a well-ordered government.  But of course, nowadays conservatives have gotten it into their heads that in fact, it is precisely economic decisions that are private and individual, lying outside the proper purview of public justice.  To be sure, such regulation will not be wholly effective, but the fact that the injustices in question are not simply or even primarily the result of individual decisions, but are structural and institutional in nature, suggests that legislative action is a natural, appropriate, and effective way of addressing these problems.  Indeed, I could go further, and point out that the very mechanisms by which investment banking is made possible do not simply spring out of the state of nature, but are the product of political and legal structures.  The corporation itself is a legal creation, as are the securities with which an entity like Bank of America makes its money—they simply would not exist apart from some kind of legal edifice.  Therefore, to call on the law to redress their abuses, one might suggest, is the most natural thing in the world.  Empirically, we could point out that politicking against particular abuses by big business, in favor of the rights of labor (in the first half of the 20th century primarily) and the rights of the consumer (in the second half of the century primarily) yielded enormous, measurable gains.

 

When it comes to protesting, well, it is worth asking exactly what protesting is intended to do?  Protesting is, to be sure, often quite directly political in orientation.  But such phenomena as pro-life marches and the Occupy movement are not best described as a kind of popular political lobbying.  In its most coherent form, protesting is a form of public witness against injustice—it seeks to call attention to, to name, an evil that is being done amongst us, with the intent of influencing the perpetrators to rethink their actions, and, perhaps more plausibly, of influencing our fellow citizens to become attentive to the injustice so that they will share our judgment of it, and join their voices with ours in calling for an end to it (whether that end come from individual, social, or political action).  

When we put things this way, I think it is possible to see why someone might consider this a rather clumsy response to the issue of abortion.  For it makes sense that a protest should be as public as the sin itself is.  Adultery is rampant in our culture, and while there are plenty of Christian voices calling it to account in appropriate ways, there has not been, to my knowledge, a National Anti-Adultery Rally, or a National Right to Fidelity March, or anything of that sort.  Of course, part of this is because we now consider adultery a sin but not a crime; but that’s not all of it.  For neither are there regularly large Anti-Drunk-Driving protests, despite the widespread deploration of drunk driving and its disastrous consequences.  For these problems, widespread as they are, are essentially an aggregate of individual, essentially private (though I do not mean to say that any sin is entirely private) sins or crimes.  They do not rise to the level of a public sin, a structural sin.  They do not have an institutional form that can be witnessed against in public.  

One could argue that similarly, abortion is essentially an individual sin and not a structural sin, that “the abortion issue” is simply an aggregate of individual evil abortions, rather than a unitary public evil that is greater than the sum of its parts.  The problem is not “abortion” as an abstract force of injustice, but particular acts of abortion—individual agents in the midst of individual crises, making individual wicked decisions.  The situations that lead women to seek abortions are unique to each woman, and so the best way to stop abortions is to work with individual women to help them.  Not, of course, that there are not many wonderful Christians out there doing just this; but we are asking now whether the sign-waving, marching, protesting side of things contributes to this work at all, or rather undermines it.

And of course, there is a “structural” element to the problem of abortion too—the poverty and abuse that drive so many women to desperation, to a sense that abortion is the only way out, the treatment of women as useful objects for sex, for which pregnancy is an awful inconvenience (this is not to say that there are not a great many abortions that are simply wicked unconstrained decisions of convenience).   But it is precisely this structural element that the pro-life movement, as a political movement, tends to most ignore.  

On the other hand, the Occupy movement, inasmuch as it has a coherent message, is bearing witness against a public, structural, institutional sin.  The greed, inequality, usury—however you want to label the core problem—that today infects our society is a structural sin.  Yes, of course, there are greedy individuals, and if no individuals were greedy, then perhaps we wouldn’t have all the problems we’ve had in recent years.  But the evil, and the harm that it does, far transcends individual greedy decisions; it would be possible for most of the investment banks’ employees to be good decent people just doing their job, and for all the problems still to persist.  The systemic usury and injustice of the financial system is the result result of warped incentive structures, poor laws, a loss of sense of the true purpose of financial institutions, collusion amongst the powerful to protect one another and veil their dealings from the public, etc.  Therefore, public protest, as a way of calling attention to the systemic problems, as a way of naming this evil and inviting us all to join in decrying it and undermining is foundations, seems highly appropriate.  

(Of course, I acknowledge that the abortion issue has a counterpart to this kind of corporate corruption, in the so-called “abortion industry”—doctors, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, entrenched advocacy groups, etc., that have a vested interest in perpetuating abortion, hiding the truth, and manipulating the powerful.  I think that pro-lifers perhaps overstate their case here sometimes, but inasmuch as this is a real power, a real fortress of evil, it warrants a forceful public witness.)

Having said all this, though, I think it is fair to admit that neither of these is, I think, the real reason why Harris (and myself) find ourselves naturally more sympathetic with sign-waving against crony capitalism than with sign-waving against abortion.  The real reason is that the former is new and the latter is old.  We grew up with the latter, and we frankly find it a bit tiresome and grating now.  It feels like our sub-culture has been harping on the same old problem forever and ever and it’s time to just deal with it and move on.  Whereas, although for our parents protesting the evils of capitalism might’ve been a common enough part of their experience, for us, it’s new, fresh, and a bit exciting.  

Now, I say all this in a tone of somewhat mocking self-criticism, but there’s more that needs to be said here as well.  For one thing, just because something’s appeal lies partly in its newness does not render it invalid.  I think stodgy Baby Boomers are right to point out that the enthusiasm for social justice causes among the rising generation is partly fuelled simply by the novelty (to us) of the cause; but I would also make the case that the cause still happens to be a very just cause, worth getting passionate about (and yes, perhaps protesting about, though that’s really not my cup of tea).  

More importantly, the newness factor makes an objective difference when one is asking about the appropriateness of the rhetoric of protest.  No doubt part of Harris’s antipathy to pro-life protest arises from her sense that, after more than three decades of it, any positive potential has likely worn off, and it is much more likely simply to have the effect of hardening opponents, and alienating potential sympathizers who are simply sick of the conflict and polarization.  A protest movement is always at its most effective when it is brand new; pretty soon, it starts to grow stale and tiresome, and people just sound like they’re whining, or obsessed, or pathologically combative.  Indeed, just look at three months of the Occupy movement.  A couple weeks in, they were cool.  A couple months in, and it’s like, “C’mon guys, enough already.  Pack up your tents and stop digging pit toilets in the park.”  After the initial point has been made, and awareness has been raised, it is usually time to turn to more constructive, concrete, and patient means of bringing about change.  In large part, to be fair, the pro-life movement has certainly done this, and has succeeded thereby in incrementally reducing the rate of abortion and in some cases improving the legal restraints upon it.  But inasmuch as portions of the movement continue to adopt the posture of angry protest, demonizing opponents and refusing to vote for any political candidate who does not share their fervour on this particular issue, it risks not only failing to be an effective voice in American culture and politics, but also continuing to drive away young evangelicals, contributing to a widening political gap between the generations that threatens to further fracture American evangelicalism and harm our witness to a watching world.


Some Tasty Morsels of Blogdom

Is it just me, or has the blogosphere churned out some unusually fine fare over the past week or so?  Well, the narrow corner of it I sample certainly has.  Here’s some highlights you should check out:

Peter Leithart bucks the Moscow trend by offering a qualified endorsement at First Things of the recent growth of evangelical interest in social justice.  In particular, he turns to the Torah to confirm the importance of this concern, but also to critique facile equations of Christian justice with welfare statism.  If we want to care for the poor the way God wants, we should pay careful attention to the view of property and poverty enshrined in these laws, and the way they worked in practice, rather than simply appealing to vague “Jubilee principles.”  Any regular reader of this blog knows that this has been a prominent theme in my own thinking and writing for the past couple years, and that Leithart is my patron saint–so naturally, I was pretty jazzed about this essay.

Stewart Clem at Transpositions offers the finest reflection I have yet encountered on Tree of Life, a film of breathtaking beauty and theological depth which has occupied my thoughts daily since I saw it two weeks ago.  The gist of Clem’s reading–the film is not, in fact, about the dichotomy of nature and grace, as it seems to claim; rather, it teaches us that nature is graced, and it is only our fallen distortions of it that make us unable to recognize it.

Davey Henreckson, after a long period of comparative blogging dormancy, has erupted in the last week with a pair of fine posts on Annabel Brett’s new book Changing States.  The most recent of these, on the relationship of natural virtue and God’s law in early Protestant political theology, is right up my alley, even majoring on that oft-neglected but ever-fascinating Florentine, Peter Martyr Vermigli.

Finally, Jeremy Kidwell, having just migrated to a new blog home, www.domesticatedtheology.com, offers some provocative reflections on Protestantism, vocations, and intentional communities.  This post almost exactly echoed some thoughts that I recently shared with a friend, and that I’ve been continuing to reflect on; I never discussed them with Jeremy, but we did have a meal together that day…must’ve been some mental osmosis going on.


How Much is Too Much? (Good of Affluence #8)

Before turning to consider the attitude that Amos is critiquing, and what this might mean for our attitude toward wealth, Schneider takes some time to critique what he considers to be irresponsible and unjustified uses of Amos-type rhetoric.  He complains that people like Ron Sider suggest that people’s eternal salvation is on the line if they enjoy too much of their wealth, instead of giving it to the poor.  Not only do they make such harsh accusations, but they do so on a hopelessly ambiguous basis.  For how much is “too much”?  Schneider suggests at first that Sider and others (he includes John Wesley here) appear to operate on a utilitarian basis, whereby we are to seek to maximize happiness for the greatest number, and so, presumably, to keep giving away any resources we don’t need as long as there are some people that are poorer than us.  But then he points to what seems like an inconsistency or hypocrisy in Sider’s approach, by which he equivocates on the meaning of the word “need.”  “‘Necessities,’ he writes, ‘is not to be understood a the minimum necessary to keep from starving.’  It rather means, he explains, what is ‘necessary’ for a standard of living that ‘would have been considered [in ancient Hebrew society] reasonable and acceptable, not embarrassingly minimal.” 

Schneider goes on to subject this new, relative definition of “necessity” to a withering cross-examination, seeking to reveal it as hopelessly relativistic, ambiguous, and self-serving to the point of uselessness.  Is having a car necessary?  Is flying trans-Atlantic necessary?  These are “reasonable and acceptable” within our society.  Couldn’t Bill Gates contend that his level of affluence is “reasonable and acceptable” in his immediate culture?  Any attempt to impose norms of “sufficient” and “too much” will thus become arbitrary and legalistic, says Schneider.  He goes so far as to mock a former student who

“had finally decided it was ‘all right to have a care, but not a big or very expensive one.’  So he judged for all of us.  But he did not like my next question, which was simply, ‘How big and how expensive a car will you let me have?’  Of course what seemed quite acceptable to me seemed morally reprehensible to him.  But on what grounds did he make this severe judgment (even as he drove around in his Ford Escort, as I believe it was, to and from activities linked with his Christian liberal arts degree at a cost of about eighty thousand dollars in the end)?”  

Now to this, at least three things must be said.  


First, I think Schneider is absolutely right to attack harshly judgmental or legalistic rhetoric.  The average American, while perhaps not wholly innocent in his wealth, is clearly not morally culpable in the same way that the rulers of Israel were.  Those directly responsible may need to hear dire warnings, but it is not constructive, I don’t think, to suggest to the average suburban churchgoer that they might go to hell if they don’t rev up their giving (that said, I’m not sure if Schneider isn’t distorting Sider’s approach here; certainly others I have read on similar themes, such as Shane Claiborne, don’t speak this way).  The doctrine of justification by faith should come to our aid here.  In dealing with these issues, we are speaking to justified people who ought to be looking for how best to share the gift they have been given, not wringing their hands in fear as to whether they’ve done enough to meet God’s standard.  

 

Second, Schneider uses the “utilitarian” slur against Sider and others repeatedly, but he’s always quite imprecise about it.  Utilitarianism is one of those things that is dangerous not because it’s the dead opposite of the truth, but because it’s so darn close to the truth.  Clearly, in very many circumstances, we should seek to maximize the greatest temporal happiness for the greatest number.  But utilitarianism breaks down because in some circumstances, this principle is overruled by other considerations, considerations that guide us to eternal happiness.  The fact that Sider thinks that those with more than enough ought to give their excess to those with less than enough does not make him a utilitarian, unless you want to call Thomas Aquinas a utilitarian too.  The use of this language is simply rhetorical bullying.


The third point is that Schneider’s attempt at a reductio is an example of the so-called “Beard Fallacy.”  The “Beard Fallacy” example imagines that you line up a bunch of guys in a row, the guy at the right clean-shaven, and the guy at the left with a full beard, with everyone in between in a spectrum, gradually becoming more stubbly and at last bearded.  If you asked someone to pinpoint where the first guy was who had a beard, you could critique any point he chose by saying, “Yeah, but what about the guy just to the right of him?  His facial hair is so close to that guy’s so as to be almost indistinguishable.”  And then, able to dismiss any attempt to distinguish where a beard began as arbitrary, you could triumphantly declare that the concept of “beard” is hopelessly relativistic, useless, and meaningless.  But clearly it’s not.  Clearly, you can recognize in most cases what counts as a beard and what doesn’t.  Same thing for “relative necessity.”  Schneider overplays his hand when he suggests that Bill Gates could justify his affluence as reasonable within his immediate culture and social setting, or as “necessary” for what it is he wants to do.  For Sider does not say that it’s one’s immediate culture that determines what is reasonable (e.g., the narrow country club high society within which you spend your time), but one’s broader society.   

Now clearly, what Sider is proposing is a very flexible standard, but he is on fairly firm ground in taking this approach.  Had Schneider cared to consult it, he might’ve found that this threefold distinction between “absolute necessity,” “relative necessity” and “superfluity” is deeply embedded in the Christian moral tradition.  It is, for instance, carefully spelled out by Aquinas and his scholastic followers.  The gist is this.  Absolute necessity is what’s needed to keep oneself and one’s family alive.  Relative necessity is roughly (I’ll paraphrase since I don’t have either Aquinas or Finnis in front of me) “that which is necessary to keep up one’s station in decency.”  Now, this obviously needs some unpacking and qualifying, because this does not mean simply conforming to social expectations.  You can be in a sub-culture with very questionable social expectations, that one should not try to conform to.  Rather, the idea is one of vocation.  If you are legitimately called by God to be, say, a lawyer in, say, Philadelphia, then you’re going to need a fair bit of money, even if you aren’t being extravagant.  You will need to be well-dressed, to have a good computer, perhaps a smartphone, a means of transportation–car if that’s most efficient; he will need to have access to lots of legal journals and books, to pay fairly high urban housing prices, etc.  Also, this second level of “necessity” allows for more substantial expenditures on food and housing so as to ensure not merely survival but robust health, hygiene, and reasonable comfort.  Resources beyond this are superflua.  Now, Aquinas would say that all superflua must be shared with anyone below “relative necessity,” but that resources necessary to maintain “relative necessity” only need to be shared when it’s a matter of life or death–that is to say, if one is in a position to help someone below the level of absolute necessity. 

Now, to be sure, there is a great deal of room for debate about precisely where these lines are drawn.  But this is only a problem if one is seeking to impose a legalistic condemnation on individuals.  This is where not merely justification by faith but virtue ethics can come to our aid.  To some extent, one can only figure out what is necessary and what is superfluous by seeking to live it out, by growing into a way of life characterized by shunning superfluity, by asking oneself, “Do I really need that?  Will I really use that?  Am I just coveting?  Am I just wanting to show off?  What else might I do with the money I save by not buying that?”  And this must be done in a spirit of Christian liberty–from the joyful standpoint of justification, not the fearful standpoint of trying to earn righteousness.  Done with this attitude, such a lifestyle need not result in asceticism–it will result in renunciation of some things, but as I have already suggested, this may make one more, not less, happy, since cluttering one’s life with ostentatious or wasteful things really does not bring “delight.”  In short, Schneider’s former student may have had the right idea.  Perhaps a car would have been very useful to him, but there would’ve been little point in buying a Lexus or Hummer.  Since this standard will be different for different people, and guilt-tripping legalism is not constructive, it generally will not make sense for me to decide for any other Christian just what sort of car they should buy, unless I’m called upon to give them guidance, or see them really going overboard.  But the existence of flexibility and ambiguity does not make this affluence morally irrelevant, anymore than the need for flexibility in other areas of moral debate implies the absence of relevant moral norms.



Defanging Amos (Good of Affluence #7)

In his fourth chapter, Schneider turns to consider the testimony concerning wealth and poverty in the Prophets and Wisdom literature.  Again, his boldness in the way he handles this material must be applauded.  He does not seek to hide behind the purple coattails of Proverbs, as many conservatives do, citing its platitudes on the God-given blessings of wealth or on poverty as a result of sloth to justify the wealthy lifestyle.  Eventually he does turn to look at Proverbs, and when he does, he is remarkably balanced, recognizing the diversity of its teachings on wealth and poverty, but it is not his starting point–Amos is.  

Of course, anyone who remembers what Amos is about is sure to recognize this as a courageous maneuver.  Amos is the book that unrelentingly bashes the Israelites for their oppression of the poor and callous enjoyment of a lavish lifestyle while the needy suffer.  Amos reads like a 8th-century BC liberation theologian.  Oh sure, you can try to say that what Amos is really worried about is idolatry, and that he really wouldn’t have any complaint against the people of Israel if they were worshipping Yahweh and enjoying their wealth, but this hardly seems sustainable when you actually look at the text, and Schneider doesn’t even try to take this route, at least not initially.  So, how does Schneider sustain the “good of affluence,” the good of enjoying as much wealth as you can and not feeling the need to give much to the poor, in the face of the book of Amos?  

Let’s take a careful look.  Schneider appears to employ two distinct evasive strategies: one focusing on responsibility, and another on attitude.  Under the first heading, Schneider seeks to show that Amos’s critiques apply to those directly responsible for the suffering of the poor in a way that we are not.  Under the second, Schneider seeks to argue that the real problem isn’t how much you have, but how you view it.  (Unfortunately, though I was hoping to cover all this in one post, it looks like it’s going to be two or three, if they’re to be of readable length.)

 

In looking at the issue of responsibility, Schneider does not pretend that Amos critiques only those who “deliberately exploit or oppress anyone”–that is there, but there is also a second evil that is targeted: that of the wives of oppressors, who are guilty simply for enjoying the fruits of oppression that they did not themselves commit, revelling in ill-gotten gains.  Schneider asks us to look closer, and see whether this is really a fair comparison to the affluence that the average American suburban Christian enjoys: “It is very important to notice and to understand that the prophets all aimed their diatribes first and foremost at the king and at the ruling classes that extended the arm of his rule.  For they were the ones who were uniquely charged by God to protect and to promote the welfare of the nation.  They were especially to take care to protect the poor and defenseless members of society, who were otherwise completely defenseless.  When these rulers instead used their powerful positions to exploit, to impoverish, and to oppress the very people they were responsible to defend–and did so merely for their own self-gratification–they obviously committed sins that were very evil indeed.”

“Given the nature of the political and social economy, there was very close, direct moral proximity between the rulers of the nation and the people that God called them to rule.  Being responsible for the people–especially their economic welfare–went with the job.  In a word, it was their job.  Their responsibility for the economic conditions of the poor in society thus could hardly have been greater or more direct than it was.  And what about the wives of those rulers.  True, they may have lacked the direct power their husbands wielded, but by marriage they wedded themselves to the entire moral situation.”

In short, Amos is not condemning people who simply happen to be rich while people around them are poor; he is condemning people who have a direct responsibility for the poor and who have abused that position for their own benefit.  In short, it is not failure to be charitable toward a neighbor that is condemned, but failure to rule justly.  The proper parallel is not the American suburbanite, Schneider says, but the petty dictator of a Third World country that lives in a mansion atop a pile of cash at the center of a web of corruption while his people starve.   

Now, all this is quite interesting.  And I think Schneider has a point.  Moral theology has a responsibility to make careful distinctions, and not simply to slap the same damning label on all circumstances of economic inequality.  The distinctions of proximity and responsibility are certainly relevant.  The bystander who watches a woman get beat up in an alley without intervening is not guilty of the same sin as her husband who runs away when the thugs arrive, and he is not guilty of the same sin as the thugs themselves.  Of course, you will note that by using this parallel, I have cast some ambiguity on Schneider’s approach even while affirming it–for surely the inactive bystander is still guilty in some way, at least, if he has real power to intervene and does not.  Schneider may be right that Amos’s direct condemnations are not aimed at the person who just happens to be affluent while others are poor, and who does nothing to help them, but that does not mean that that person is free from any moral ambiguity.  But let us leave aside that question for a moment and ask a two more questions to complicate Schneider’s account.

 

First, Schneider lays great stress on the fact that it was the “job” in a very literal sense of these wealthy landowners in Israel to care for the poor.  They were the equivalent of governors and mayors, entrusted with the well-being of their citizens.  But are they de facto rulers, or de jure rulers?  Are they rulers who just happen to be rich, or rich men who just happen to be rulers?  That is to say, are they not in fact simply men who have made themselves very rich, and thereby become men of power and influence, so that they can be called “rulers,” even if they are not really supposed to be?  I do not know Amos or the social history of ancient Israel well enough to answer for sure.  But if this is true, then it means that one cannot simply say, “Oh, I’m not the president of Haiti (or whatever), so this isn’t aimed at me.”  An American executive may turn out to be functionally one of the “rulers” of some Third World nation, and hence quite directly responsible for how his policies affect its people.  

Might it not be true that America, because of its immense global power and decades of control over large parts of the world economy (as well as regular interventions in the political organization of other countries), has a direct moral responsibility for much of what happens in Third World nations?  Notice that I speak here only of indirect responsibility.  I think that if Schneider cared to do much research at all, he would find that in fact the American government and American corporations have been directly responsible for brutal injustices and crushing poverty in many nations over the last century, and hence cannot in any way evade Amos’s condemnation.  But even aside from these, our country, and many of our corporations, have a great deal of influence in what happens in South Africa or Nicaragua or the Phillippines or Haiti.  In short, if Amos is critiquing the rulers who preside over injustice, then that’s not simply Pinochet or Duvalier or the Shah–that’s us.  

Second, in the current capitalist and democratic system, how much distance does the wealthy suburbanite have from all this?  Say I work for Monsanto and invested a lot of money in Halliburton and voted for George W. Bush.  Is Amos speaking to me?  I picked particularly pointed examples, but let’s be more general, and just saw that in a system where I formally have a direct voice in the government of the country, and in the government of corporations I invest in, how much responsibility do I have for injustices presided over by those entities?  Am I really just a bystander?  Does my wealth have any moral relation to Haiti’s poverty?  

Now clearly, even if the answer is “Yes,” it is a qualified Yes.  If a thug beats up a woman in an alley, and that thug is my brother-in-law, and I knew he had a drinking problem and was falling in with the wrong sorts, and didn’t do anything about it, am I implicated in any way?  Well, maybe, but obviously indirectly, and it would be wrong for me or anyone else to beat my conscience up too much about it.  The correct approach, in a highly interconnected world, hardly seems to be wringing our hands in guilt and asking just how much the injustice was our responsibility.  Rather, it is more constructive to turn the question around, and ask how much it is in my power to help.  The best way to figure out if you’re a culpable bystander or not is to stop being a bystander, and start doing something constructive.  What might this look like?  We’ll see what Schneider has to say on this in the following posts.


Social Justice and the Jubilee (Good of Affluence #6)

As I mentioned in my fourth post, Schneider does, as a matter of fact, have some interesting and nuanced things to say about the Old Testament economic laws.  He, at any rate, is not content to use in the standard conservative dismissal that says these “laws” were not really laws but merely moral guidance–that would not, after all, help his case, since his interest is not in the duties of government toward the poor, but in the moral duties of Christian individuals.  Nor is he content to ascribe to laws like the Jubilee a purely spiritual and symbolic function, a mere prophecy of the spiritual jubilee of release from sin that Jesus brings (a strategy commonly employed by theonomists like Chilton and North who otherwise insist on taking the OT laws with strictest seriousness as New Covenant legal principles).  As I quoted before, he says at the outset of discussing this material that “concern for the poor and powerless (including the earth and animals)…is essential to the whole biblical vision of delight.”  Later he affirms that “Sider is no doubt correct (as well as in line with all mainline Christian moral teaching) in thinking that the jubilee provisions are a model of some kind for the institution of social mechanisms in law and policy that protect people from losing everything they have.”

So where’s the rub?  Well, Schneider pushes us to evaluate more closely what the Jubilee actually does.  They do not universally redistribute wealth from the wealthiest to the poorest.  For instance, he points out, “The poorest people in society were unaffected by it.  For aliens, sojourners, non-Israelite debtors and slaves possessed no land in the first place and thus had no share in its repossession on the day of jubilee.  Their economic need, however dire, played no role in the redistribution.”  From this he draws the conclusion, “Strange though it may seem . . . the people whom the jubilee helped were not the poor, but the families of original affluence.”  He returns to this theme repeatedly, hinting that the class that the jubilee helped was really what we might call the “gentry,” the “landed classes.”  Although true in one sense, this is deceptive, since the intention of the Old Testament law was that every single Israelite family had land, was a member of the “landed classes.”  Because this ownership was universal and, in intention, fairly equal, it is a serious distortion to imagine these ordinary Israelites as the “affluent gentry,” as Schneider seems to invite us to.  Nonetheless, he does have a point, at least against those who would carelessly invoke the jubilee as being alone a sufficient model for Christian social justice.  However, for anyone who does not take the jubilee on its own, but together with other provisions for the poor in the Torah, the force of his point is considerably blunted, as he himself admits: “Of course there are provisions elsewhere in the law that prove beyond question that the affluent Israelites had obligations of justice to the poor within Israel.”  Moreover, while it is quite true that the Jubilee and the law in general offers much more extensive protections for Israelites, over against foreigners, it seems that this objection holds little water once one transposes these principles into a New Covenant key. 

The Old Testament law is based throughout on a sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders, between Israelites and Gentiles.  But of course it is this very distinction that is challenged so systematically in the New Testament, so that we are called to extend the principles of love, justice, and solidarity that formerly applied only to insiders to outsiders as well.  The point of Jesus’ ministry, as interpreted by Paul in particular, is that exodus and jubilee and all the rest is now not only for Israel, but for the whole world.  Of course, there does seem to remain the continuing principle of “let us do good to all, and especially to the household of faith,” because it is simply impossible from a human perspective to make sure that everyone indiscriminately has all their needs cared for.  This will be discussed further when we get to Schneider’s treatment of the New Testament and “moral proximity.”

Schneider also points out that the jubilee law, as a matter of fact, prevented one from showing unrestrained charity.  Since all land had to return to the original owners every fifty years, even if they didn’t actually need it and there were others who needed it more, it was impossible for a wealthy Israelite to permanently divest himself and share his resources with landless sojourners.  The point was to prevent extreme inequality, but considerable inequality was allowed to remain.  Granted, then, that the jubilee does not (certainly taken alone) provide a clarion call for a complete redistribution from all with a surplus to all with a lack; but what then does Schneider think it does provide?  Does he think that the model of an inalenable sacred relationship to the ancestral land is to characterize our economies?  Presumably not.  So we are not, as a matter of fact, restrained from selling our land and giving to the landless sojourners, in the way ancient Israelites were.  Given that the trajectory of the Old Testament laws is to much greater concern for the poor and vulnerable, might we as Christians not be supposed to intensify this trajectory, and go further than jubilee?  Such questions are, alas, left unaddressed.  

Schneider does not, however, leave unaddressed the implications of the jubilee for private property: “In his classic 1954 study of Leviticus 25, Robert North pointed out that the jubilee, properly understood, actually ‘stresses and safeguards the function of private property as an incentive to industrious energy.’ . . . In fact, Leviticus 25 not only affirms and safeguards the property rights of each tribe, it declares such rights to be unalienable, as unalterable and absolute as the God who gave the property to them.”  The jubilee, Schneider goes on, following North, shows us an ideal of liberty that is dependent upon the “independent small property owner,” an ideal supportive of “modern democratic capitalism.”  Social justice advocates of jubilee, he implies throughout this section, use the passage to try to undercut private property rights, whereas in fact it strengthens them.  Well, yes and no.  As I have pointed out in many previous discussions of this passage and others, the logic is in fact neither socialist (as Schneider apparently accuses his opponents of thinking) nor capitalist (as Schneider seems to think), but basically distributist, with some distinctive sacral elements thrown in.  Private property is extremely important, which is why it is important that everyone in Israel have some, and that no one amass too much property at the expense of others.  Property is not the product of one’s labor, over which one has as much power as over oneself, but a gift held in fief, the use and distribution of which is governed by the original owner, God.  Capital, in this paradigm, is highly illiquid, and subject to enormous restrictions on its ability to move and congregate.  It is, to be sure, a model in which property is the foundation of liberty, but property understood in stark contrast to how modern democratic capitalism understands it.  If you want to go to Leviticus 25 for a “high view” of private property, by all means do so, but recognize that it is a radically different view than the modern Lockean one, with radically different implications for economic life. 

 

What would it look like transposed into a modern key?  Does faithfulness to this Old Testament ideal require an agrarian society of some kind?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But we ought to be able to agree that the economic ideal presented is that everyone ought to have enough for their sustenance, and that no one ought to amass more than they can use.  We may debate over whether this principle must be applied politically, or “merely morally,” but either way, it renders the “good of affluence” a qualified and relative good, a good that can become an evil in the face of indigence.