Author Archives: Jesse Covington

David Gushee’s Changing Mind: Evangelicals and Sexual Ethics

On November 4th David Gushee published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “I’m an evangelical minister. I now support the LGBT community–and the church should, too.” Here, Gushee makes his case for rejecting the traditional Christian teaching on homosexual conduct, framed in terms of the LGTB community as a sexual minority. He summarizes it thus:

For me, the answer to this debate has become simple: There is a sexual-minority population of about 5 percent of the human family that has received contempt and discrimination for centuries. In Christendom, the sexual ethics based in those biblical passages metastasized into a hardened attitude against sexual- and gender-identity minorities, bristling with bullying and violence. This contempt is in the name of God, the most powerful kind there is in the world. I now believe that the traditional interpretation of the most cited passages is questionable and that all that parsing of Greek verbs has distracted attention from the primary moral obligation taught by Jesus — to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially our most vulnerable neighbors. I also now believe that while any progress toward more humane treatment of LGBT people is good progress, we need to reconsider the entire body of biblical interpretation and tradition related to this issue.

Put simply, it finally became clear to me that I must side with those who were being treated with contempt, just as I hope I would have sided with Jews in the Nazi era and with African Americans during the civil rights years.

A caveat: I understand that this op-ed reflects thinking Gushee develops in more detail in his recent book Changing Our Mind (David Crumm Media, 2014) and in his series of 17 posts for Baptist News Global. I haven’t read the book and have only scratched the surface the BNG posts, so what follows here is focused on Gushee’s Washington Post piece. (For a critique engaging the broader project, see Matt Franck’s excellent piece for Canon & Culture.)

The Logic: As I make it out, the basic structure of Gushee’s argument goes like this:

  • Christians are oppressing sexual minorities (based on contested scriptural interpretation);
  • The Gospel requires standing with the oppressed;
  • Christians should drop their ethical claims about sexual behavior as part of standing with the LGTBQ community.

Gushee’s logic here is worth noting. The last step–dropping traditional Christian claims about sexual ethics—rests on two rationales: 1) the fact of being oppressed; and 2) Gushee’s judgment that the clarity of scripture on this issue is “questionable.” In his Washington Post piece, the first of these claims bears the lion’s share of his argument; the second is merely mentioned in passing. I believe the first claim is flawed and the second to be unsubstantiated. We’ll consider each in turn.

What Gushee gets right: It’s helpful to recast Gushee’s language of “standing with” in terms of a biblical conception of love. The fact of being oppressed does indeed call for a loving Christian response to suffering. Gushee’s exhortation to treat those who identify as LGTBQ with love is thus well-taken: he describes a history of “contempt and discrimination” towards those who so identify and rightly treats “bullying and violence” as un-Christian. In addition to the compassion Gushee calls for, we might add that where Christians have sinned, love also requires repentance and confession. So far, so good. Moreover, Gushee wants to compassionately account for the suffering of those who identify as LGBTQ–an important aspect of showing love in a fallen world, and an issue that resonates with the experiences described by the likes of Wesley Hill.

Divine love: welcome with an agenda: Where Gushee’s argument gets into trouble lies with the implications of love for our ethics: Does the call to “love the oppressed” change the substance of Christian ethics? Many would say yes. Christians sometimes talk about God’s love as “unconditional” and there is a sense in which this is quite right. God does not wait for sinners to reform themselves before He reaches out to them. Instead, God is like the father in the story of the two brothers in Luke 15. He runs to meet the prodigal son–the one who knows he is helpless and cries out: “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” (v. 21, NIV). But thinking of God’s love as “unconditional” can easily distort the agenda that God’s love entails. When confronted by the Pharisees in Matthew 9 for the keeping company with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus replies in Matthew 9:12: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (NIV) The implication is that those who mistakenly think they are healthy wrongly fail to call the doctor–just as in the Luke 15 story where the “good” brother is in danger because he does not know his need. Gushee frames the LGBTQ issue as “not primarily an issue of Christian sexual ethics” but rather “primarily an issue of human suffering.” Here, he seems to endorse the first aspect of divine love (the welcome) while avoiding the second (love’s agenda). But the need to take love’s welcome more seriously does not, ipso facto, abrogate any aspect (jot or tittle?) of love’s agenda.  Thus, while the fact of being oppressed does support the argument to love, it does not provide any support for changing the transformative content of that love. To push the point further, any time that we suggest that love is only welcome (and thus not also transformation)—a gospel of “I’m okay; you’re okay”—we encourage each other to think of ourselves like the older brother in Luke 15 who stays at home and who see no need to repent. To the extent that we reduce love to “welcome”, we accept that false claim that ethical disagreement is itself dehumanizing. Insofar as Gushee makes this reduction, he seems to go beyond opposing political oppression (dehumanization) to requiring a positive affirmation of a new sexual ethic.

Interpreting scripture: Given the above, the substantive merits of Gushee’s rationale for altering Christian sexual ethics must rest entirely on his account of scripture’s witness regarding sexual ethics—a matter that gets minimal treatment in Gushee’s op-ed (and thus also by me in this post). In it, Gushee describes “Our argument has centered on six or seven biblical passages that appear to mention homosexuality negatively or appear to establish a heterosexual norm: the sin of Sodomthe laws of Leviticus and the list of “the unrighteous” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.” He describes “endless debates over how to interpret that handful of biblical passages.” Gushee attempts to resolve this debate with the claim that, “I now believe that the traditional interpretation of the most cited passages is questionable.” If we should reject any apparent biblical teaching that has ever been subject to the sort of questioning Gushee describes with respect to sexual ethics, then no major teaching of scripture that has ever been questioned should be held securely, including, for instance, Christ’s divinity, the trinity, and the nature of justification. Put differently, this would mean that the existence of a question–such as the disagreements that required councils of the Church to iron out creedal commitments–should preclude accepting the Bible’s apparent meaning. I understand that Gushee has devoted significant attention to the scriptural and theological questions tied up in Christian sexual ethics and I look forward to reading and engaging his arguments. Suffice it to say, however, that more than being “questionable” should be required to reverse course on the Church’s long-held interpretations of the Bible.

Implications: Finally, we should recognize that more is at stake than just how to interpret a handful of passages on specific sexual acts. To make this claim suggests a case of serious theological myopia. Strongly implicated in questions of human sexuality and relationships are other matters of no small import to Christians: the doctrine of creation, especially as regards marriage and the family; the relation of God to his people as a bride (Hosea, Ephesians 5); the theology of Divine covenants, which are always made with familial implications; and the very model of relational plurality-in-unity: the Holy Trinity. I expect that Gushee knows all of this; indeed I believe he engages some of these issues in his more extensive arguments. But he would do better to resist casting LGTBQ  issues as a “love vs. questionable passages” dichotomy in which Christians should choose “love.” Of course we should choose love, but that love must be understood in theological context, in all of its rich fullness and breadth—to the extent that we can comprehend it.


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Election Predictions and the Responsibility to Vote–A few hastily-composed thoughts for election day.

The last few weeks have been full of bookie-like odds projections, predicting the outcomes of various races and the subsequent composition of governing bodies. How likely is the Senate to swing to the Republicans? It depends who you ask. The New York Times puts the odds at 75% and offers a graphic representation of how the odds have changed over time. Yesterday’s Huffington Post suggested a 77% chance. One CNN analyst today predicted 95%. The Washington Post goes as high as 96%.

Probabilistic statistics may make us uncomfortable at times, since they can suggest a higher degree of determinacy than is compatible with our sense of personal agency. They can also work against get-out-the-vote efforts. Don’t the voters decide elections, after all?

Honesty about the math, however, can be sobering. As rational choice theorists are sometimes fond of observing in the so-called “paradox of voting”, the probability that one person will cast the deciding vote in a large-scale election is infinitesimally small. Indeed, it is so small that the numerical representation of a consequence-based argument for voting (the pB term in the equation R = pB – C — namely, the the probability of casting the deciding vote multiplied by the benefits one will receive if and only if one’s preferred candidate wins) is statistically indistinguishable from zero.

So why vote?

Rational choice theorists focus on the “D” or “duty” term in the equation–the social and psychological benefits that are intrinsic to voting and that one receives even if one’s preferred candidate does not win. This is where economic theories of voting locate one’s sense of moral obligation.

The mathematical realities have led some Christians to argue that we ought to approach voting expressively rather than instrumentally. That is, we should vote sincerely rather than strategically, to borrow language from my colleague Tom Knecht. His  argument suggests that one should vote for a candidate that one truly endorses–rather than the least-of-several-evils that actually has a chance of winning–since one’s vote will not actually determine the election. Moreover, one could extend this argument to support the expressive value of not voting when the only choices are among minimally attractive candidates. Despite the varied merits of these argument, I want to suggest something else (not particularly original) here.

Voting does present a collective action problem, but it is not clear to me that this requires one to entirely reject an instrumental approach to voting (i.e., one that is geared toward contributing to a particular outcome). While one vote is not generally instrumental to selecting a candidate to hold office, elections nevertheless are instrumental to selecting a candidate to hold office and that this has implications for how we see individual voting inputs. The argument that one vote does not determine an election requires all other things to remain equal–for others to behave as one expects them to do. Thus, the logic of the case for expressive voting or non-voting require that others not do likewise.

Since we are responsible for ourselves more than we are responsible for others, I wonder whether we might not retain certain election-outcome-based moral arguments for voting. Since we do not have the responsibility (let alone the ability) to keep all other things equal (cast others votes for them or require that they do so), we can only behave in a manner that spends our own political authority responsibly. Put another way, what is our duty with regard to elections, and why? If candidate selection is even slightly implicated, then I don’t know that we can accept a purely expressive view.

The biblical concept of faithfulness is instructive here. Proverbs 16:9 states: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” (NIV) While the supremacy of God’s wisdom and providence are in view here, so is human agency in relation to Him. I’ve often reflected that humans are responsible for being faithful with inputs and that God is responsible for outcomes. I think this is well applied to an argument for voting instrumentally, not just expressively.

If I am right about this, then faithfulness may require spending our political authority responsibly–as if we are casting the deciding vote, even when we aren’t. This doesn’t deal with all the attendant issues and problems raised by rational choice models and arguments for expressive voting, but it does suggest something of what we should do.

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Religious Liberty and Pluralism: The Case of Gordon College

The Boston Business Journal (BBJ) reported last week on recent developments between Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and its accreditation board, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC): take a year to review (and change) college policy.

(By way of background, NEASC had put Gordon on the agenda for its higher education commission’s meeting during September 17-18, following heightened attention to Gordon’s behavioral expectations last summer. This attention spawned from Gordon President Michael Lindsay’s signing of a letter to President Obama arguing for exemptions for religious organizations’ hiring practices under an executive order limiting hiring discrimination by federal contractors. At issue for the NEASC is whether the exclusion of “homosexual practice” by Gordon’s behavioral expectations violates NEASC “standards and policies” [see BJJ 7/10/14]).

Last week’s developments reflect the NEASC granting Gordon College a year reprieve in order for a college working group to review Gordon’s behavioral standards for consistency with NEASC policy. While the review is ostensibly at Gordon’s initiative, the purpose (from NEASC’s perspective) is clear: to give the college a chance to see the error of its ways and to change its policy. According to the BBJ’s report, NEASC President Barbara Brittingham described the year in just these terms: “She said the long time frame that Gordon College has been allowed for the review is appropriate considering that Gordon College’s policy is ‘deeply embedded in the culture of the college’ and such things ‘don’t change overnight.'” (BBJ)

Much remains to be seen about how this will play out, so it’s best not to rush to any final judgment. The process and what is driving it, however, bear consideration. Without inferring any malevolence on NEASC’s part, its actions should give pause to those committed to religious liberty and to a pluralist society. In this instance, an accrediting board is using its power to pressure a private college away from its religious commitments as manifested in its behavioral expectations. NEASC’s power is far from insubstantial: accreditation has major implications for college finances, perhaps most notably through students’ eligibility for federal financial aid. Put strongly, the pressure from NEASC brings the coercive power of the state (albeit indirectly) to bear on (re)shaping a distinctively religious community.

Moreover, NEASC’s actions reflect a broader cultural confusion about what toleration and pluralism mean–the same confusion shaping the CSU system’s recent policy change for its on-campus groups. Rather than suggesting that Gordon ensure that prospective students are familiar with its policies so that those who disagree with them can elect to attend other institutions, NEASC’s stance suggests something else. It seems to indicate that reasonable people of good will cannot disagree about sexual ethics, and that those who do disagree–even voluntary communities like Gordon–should be prevented from shaping policies pursuant to their beliefs.

Regardless of one’s opinions about Gordon’s behavioral standards, a pluralistic society must retain protections for religious freedom such that voluntary associations are not precluded from shaping their communities in a manner consistent with their beliefs. As Robert George provocatively phrased it over at Mirror of Justice, “If the powers that be—in this case an accreditation board—can force Gordon College into line with the dogmas of expressive individualism and sexual liberationist ideology, no college (or law school) whose moral and religious commitments place it in dissent from the new orthodoxy will be safe.”

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Discrimination and Diversity

Stephen Monsma’s recent piece in Capital Commentary provides helpful perspective on the California State University’s system-wide de-recognition of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. InterVarsity asks that its officers hold religious views consistent with the group’s mission, placing it at odds with recent CSU policy changes prohibiting recognized clubs from discriminating on a host of lines, including religion. Monsma wonders how: “…in the upside-down, Alice-in-Wonderland world of the CSU, reducing the diversity of on-campus religious student organizations somehow will increase students’ ‘exposure to new ideas, especially those that are in conflict.’”

Monsma’s argument echoes Justice Alito’s 2010 dissent in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez–a case which dealt with a closely parallel situation. In the CLS case, Alito argued that making an all-comers policy a condition for recognized club status worked against the very diversity it purported to promote: “In sum, Hastings’ accept-all-comers policy is not reasonable in light of the stipulated purpose of the RSO forum: to promote a diversity of viewpoints ‘among’–not within‘registered student organizations'” (p. 31).

Like Alito, Monsma points out that not all discrimination is invidious. Indeed, ensuring that groups can make such distinctions is essential to the existence of groups espousing diverse viewpoints. Monsma is right that CSU’s policy injures the pluralism of California’s CSU campuses. His commentary can be found in its entirety here.

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Education, Formation, and Assessment

(Note: this post began as a reply to Bryan’ McGraw’s post from July 23, but it got long enough to suggest posting it separately–though not because I disagree with McGraw’s argument.)

David Brooks’ recent column on William Deresiewicz reaches conclusions similar to McGraw’s, though Brooks is somewhat less critical of Deresiewicz. Rather than framing what is missing from higher education explicitly in terms of “human flourishing” as McGraw does, Brooks describes the problem in closely related terms:

But people in authority no longer feel compelled to define how they think moral, emotional and spiritual growth happens, beyond a few pablum words that no one could disagree with and a few vague references to community service. The reason they don’t is simple. They don’t think it’s their place, or, as Pinker put it, they don’t think they know.

In contrast, those in parental authority still (usually) claim some “place” in more substantive accounts of formation-for-flourishing. Michael J. Lewis’ piece in First Things today suggests that to exercise this authority effectively, parents may need to take a significant step back. Lewis uses Deresiewicz as a launching-point for questions tied up with childhood formation–how non-constrictive parenting habits and especially independent play are essential to shaping imaginative, responsible, and mature people. He argues that unsupervised play allows children to learn from the consequences of the choices they make “when no one is looking.” He continues:

They do this in the process of deciding what to play, establishing the rules, choosing sides, and resolving the inevitable dispute. In short, by acting as miniature citizens with autonomy rather than as passive subjects to be directed.

While the “unsupervised” aspect of this could easily be overstated (formation requires outside influences, after all), the exercise of minimally-structured agency seems a crucial part of maturation.

I can’t help but wonder whether both faces of the problem–a rigidly cognitive (and thus anemic) conception of education on the one hand, and risk-adverse and unimaginative students on the other–will only be compounded by educational trends that are increasingly oriented towards assessable outcomes. In other words, might the pressures from accreditation agencies (and increasingly from government sources) have stifling consequences on education-for-flourishing in a manner analogous to the effects of helicopter parents on their children’s maturation?

Cognition–especially its simpler forms–is easier to quantify than are the many facets of a robust account of human flourishing. Moreover, imaginative and risk-taking academic work may not seem like a good bet to students or their teachers in a context that rewards narrowly-defined assessable successes. Like a parent watching from the kitchen window, the presence of the rubric may loom increasingly over the academic endeavor, constricting the goods it orients itself to pursue.

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Speaking Truth to Chaos: The Arizona RFRA Amendment

There is a good deal of confusion as to whether Arizona’s SB1062, if signed, would enable businesses to systematically discriminate against homosexuals. Some major media outlets strongly indicate that it would and further suggest that this is the primary aim of the law. CNN Money states that the law: “would allow retailers to refuse service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender customers based on the owners’ religious convictions.” The L.A. Times describes it as “a measure to bolster the rights of business owners to refuse service to gays and others on the basis of religion.” Thus framed as a pro-discrimination measure, the law is the subject of great deal of public ire and disdain.

Speaking helpfully into these discussions, a number of prominent law professors yesterday sent this letter to Arizona Governor Janice Brewer. Its authors include Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School, Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School, Richard Garnett of Notre Dame Law School, and Douglas Laycock of UVA Law School, among a number of others.

While I commend reading the letter in its entirety, its major points include:

  • Framing this amendment to Arizona’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the larger context of Federal and state RFRAs, which provide certain limited protections for religious believers faced with the prospect of being forced to personally participate in an activity which would violate their religious beliefs.
  • Clarifying that when an is action covered under Arizona’s RFRA–even as amended–it does not mean that the action will be vindicated, but rather that certain guidelines will shape it’s subsequent adjudication in court (burdens on sincerely held religious convictions can only be sustained for compelling state interests–requiring assessment of sincerity, burden, and state interest). In the words of the letter: “So, to be clear: SB1062 does not say that businesses can discriminate for religious reasons. It says that business people can assert a claim or defense under RFRA, in any kind of case (discrimination cases are not even mentioned, although they would be included), that they have the burden of proving a substantial burden on a sincere religious practice, that the government or the person suing them has the burden of proof on compelling government interest, and that the state courts in Arizona make the final decision.
  • Explaining how the changes that SB1026 makes to Arizona’s existing RFRA legislation help to clarify ambiguities in its current language that lead to increased litigation, particularly on threshold issues rather than substantive ones.
  • Finally, noting how SB1026 does not suffer from the same discriminatory defects as Kansas’ HB2453.

The letter concludes:

“Business regulations do not often require a business owner to violate a deeply held religious belief, but sometimes they do, and when that happens, the Arizona RFRA should be available. Keep in mind that it will not guarantee either side a win; it will test the government’s claims and the religious believer’s claims under RFRA’s general standard.”

While many will still disagree about the substance of the law, this sort of clear legal thinking provides an important voice that may be missing from much of the current public discussion.

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Cognition and Embodiment: An Ongoing Conversation with Jamie Smith

Here are a few brief thoughts on Jamie Smith’s recent reply to “Irreducibly Embodied”—the Books and Culture review essay of Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works that I co-authored with Maurice Lee, Sarah Skripsky, and Lesa Stern.  I will note at the outset I am grateful for the charitable spirit with which Smith frames his reply.  If in some way our “push back” against aspects of his argument can help him advance a project that I have found so beneficial, I’m grateful to be included in such an ongoing conversation.  In that spirit, here are a few thoughts upon reading Smith’s reply. (I should also note that while the review essay was co-authored, I speak for myself in these reflections.)

First, Smith points out at the outset of his reply that his intent in ITK is not to critique dualism, focusing instead on the good aspects of maintaining dualities. While I’m with him on the relevance of maintaining helpful dualities, I’m inclined to stand by reading him as speaking to dualism. In his reply he describes dualism as “roughly, a hierarchical distinction that devalues one of the terms of the distinction.” This, I take it, is indeed one of the main thrusts of his larger project—critiquing the hierarchical prioritization of mind over body, especially in Christian educational institutions (hence the concern with cognitivist, “bobbleheaded” universities in Desiring the Kingdom). To the extent that ITK develops this argument and articulates further the import of the body, it does appear that dualism, thus construed, remains squarely in view.

Second, Smith avers that we have misread him as promoting too rigid of a distinction (dualism?) between mind and body, rather than the complex “betweenness” he means to communicate. However, I suspect we have heard and appreciated this argument more than Smith acknowledges. Despite this appreciation, we see his articulation of “betweenness” operating hierarchically (like a dualism) and we wish to explore extending his account of “betweenness” to a more robust dialectic between body and mind in which the body does not always take priority. To the extent that we see thought and action “neatly distinguished and ordered,” my sense is that we see this in the single-directionality that he articulates, ordering bodily perception first and reflection second. Yes, the intellect is embodied, but we’re not sure that Smith’s move away from “bobbleheaded” Christian thinking doesn’t risk simply reversing the hierarchy, making the body take priority over the mind. To be sure, as we note in the review and as Smith notes in his reply, he doesn’t practice such a reversal himself. He clearly sees reflection as essential for reshaping bodily practices (this is, after all, the endeavor of the book!). His theory just seems to give priority to the body in a manner that smacks of dualism rather than the sort of dialectic we might hope for. (As an aside, I’ll note that Smith wonders whether we have appreciated the nuances of Merleau-Ponty’s account of the body-mind relationship. For my own part, I am more than ready to own this: I am sure I have not! My hope has been that we could do Smith some justice without aspiring to his expertise in Merleau-Ponty’s thought; where this hasn’t worked out well, I can only express my regret.)

Third, I fear Smith may have misconstrued the section of the review essay on the relation of the university and the church. Rather than accusing Smith of de-valuing the mind or collapsing the church and the university, here we sought to make two closely-related points. On the one hand, we meant to highlight the potential breadth of practices that might be described as “worship” and the need for careful thought about how these might be worked out in different contexts—including educational institutions. On the other hand, we intended to point out an apparent ambiguity in the implications of Smith’s argument for the relations of church and university. In probing these areas, we certainly explore aspects of Smith’s arguments that seem to point in competing directions (both towards a body-centered dualism focusing on church-worship practices as primary and towards a more helpful dialectical construction), and we illustrate potential problems by pointing out where aspects of Smith’s arguments might lead, if extended. But our call is for ongoing thinking and clarity and we do not accuse Smith of anti-intellectualism or church-college conflation. Indeed, we state: “Smith does not move powerfully in either of these directions—i.e., either to collapse or to define the distinctions between Church and college.”  I’m certainly open to the potential for the sort of “robust connection” to which he alludes in his reply and I am by no means ready to say that all of the church’s liturgies are “inappropriate” to the Christian university. Rather, I am eager to see this conversation spell things out further in this area.

Smith describes our review as operating from within the “intellectualist paradigm” that he has been at pains to challenge. This claim may well have some merit; we may be operating within something of an intellectualist paradigm. This claim does not, however, adequately reflect my appreciation for Smith’s project, nor my hope that the reflections in our review essay are pulling in much the same direction as is Smith: seeking rightly-related understanding and practices working in tandem with each other for Kingdom purposes.

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Augustine and the Government Shutdown: The Politics of Imperfection and Compromise

I am currently leading a study abroad semester and have had the privilege of teaching St. Augustine to students during the portion of our trip when we are living in Rome.  Last week I gave an exam that had the following multiple choice question:

  1. _____ Augustine believes that justice is:
    1. Perfect right ordering under God’s authority
    2. Available in perfection only in the world to come
    3. Attainable in relative terms in this present life
    4. Can only be attained by struggle in the present life
    5. All of the above
    6. None of the above

Setting aside that I reduced Augustine to multiple choice questions, I hope students come to appreciate (among other things) Augustine’s tempered expectations for political justice. Even earnest striving can only produce an imperfect earthly justice–producing a peace that Augustine describes as a “compromise between human wills about the things relevant to mortal life.”

The same week I read a Facebook post by Steve Garber, defending the virtues of “proximate justice” in the face of the government shutdown. Although Augustine is not mentioned, Steve’s reflections are deeply Augustinian. His words point to the import of compromise and offer wisdom worth sharing:

“Making peace with proximate justice?

Several years ago I was asked by a magazine editor to write an essay on the vocation of politics. I thought about it over a summer, and offered “Making Peace with Proximate Justice.” Having watched Washington for a long time, for many years teaching political responsibility to undergraduates on Capitol Hill, the vision of “something” seems more honest than every version of all-or-nothing. When anything happens in the political world that is more just than not, it is because there is some peace made with proximate justice.

Flying back into Washington this afternoon after days in Boston and Indianapolis, seeing the standoff between the partisan voices of the political left and right, I have thought of proximate justice one more time. Both sides are eager to play their blame-games, shouting out to all who will hear, “Of course I’m right! And of course they’re wrong!” Neither side is willing to give the other anything.

I don’t think that moderation is itself a good, or even that political moderation is in and of itself a worthy ambition. Being luke-warm has its own curses. But wiser folk have always understood that politics is the art of the possible, especially when the work at hand is politically serious. If one can bully his way because he can, that kind of arrogance will eventually come back to bite. If one side doesn’t really give a rip what the other side thinks, certain as they are that their vision and their vision alone is right, it is a dead end for everyone. Both sides show a self-righteousness that has become self-deception, unable to see their own frailties and flaws.

Does health care matter? For everyone everywhere. Are health care costs outrageous? For everyone everywhere. And healthcare is only one face of the showdown about the budget and the economics of our common life. Finding a way forward that addresses our true needs as a society is very complex, and beyond what anyone has yet imagined, or at least anyone that has gained a hearing. What do we do?

Wendell Berry has taught me that even the most complex situations, socially, economically, politically, are like marriage, and I’m sure that he is right. Most moments in our marriage reflect the deeper, harder truth that we each are implicated in the problem, and that we each have something important to say about its resolution.

The only way forward is to make peace with proximate justice. It is a choice to make peace with something, something that is honest and true, something that is more just and more merciful, even if it is not everything. All-or-nothing never works– in marriages, in friendships, in the workplace, in the church. And it never works in politics.

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Ambivalences of Christian Patriotism (Happy Independence Day)

In his book Desiring the Kingdom (2009), Jamie Smith adds his voice to the familiar tradition of a deep skepticism of Christian patriotism. He suggests that many of our culture’s liturgies (especially those associated with sports, film, and education) are fundamentally nationalistic and compete with Christian liturgies (103ff). In Smith’s words, “…it’s tough for the weekly recital of the Creed to compete with daily utterance of the Pledge” (109). Smith’s skepticism of the state runs deep. He wonders: “…can there be a ‘natural’ affection for an artificial reality? If there ever was something like a ‘natural’ fatherland, (I’m not convinced there was), the modern nation-state is a long way from such a reality.” (111) Smith doesn’t develop these ideas very far in Desiring the Kingdom, but promises to in a planned third installment in the “Cultural Liturgies Trilogy.”

Smith’s warnings about the dangers of nationalism are–in many respects–quite salutary. Christians have a long and unfortunate history of erroneously conflating the political community and the Christian community in a wide variety of disastrous combinations.

But, borrowing David Koyzis’ language, nationalism is like any idolatry inasmuch as it takes a created good–that is actually good–and elevates it beyond its station. Oliver O’Donovan’s thinking may be helpful here. In an article titled “The Loss of a Sense of Place” (originally published in 1989 in the Irish Theological Quarterly and republished in Bonds of Imperfection (2004), O’Donovan suggests that “place” undergirds the the idea of a ‘natural fatherland’ of which Smith is skeptical. “To think of a place is simultaneously to think of a natural space on the one hand and the community that is defined in relation to it on the other. It is to grasp the reciprocal relation between nature and culture: geographical space mediating a possibility for human community…. A place is precisely a setting where a communication of some kind takes form.” (304). He continues, explicitly linking shared place to neighbor love–even for the itinerant pilgrim on his way to God. O’Donovan insists that while the call to Christian neighbor-love is universal, it must not be an abstract universalism but a concrete one: “Concrete universalism consists in seeing the particular place as an instance of the universal” (318).

Drawing on Simone Weil, O’Donovan applies this to the modern nation-state and calls for the “acceptance of the contingent” nature of the nation-state. “Contingent historical circumstances have thrown the nation together in this form, which is at once infinitely open to challenge and yet the only form available to us. Compassion for the nation-state is bred of the knowledge that it is neither necessary nor inevitable, yet it mediates good. Whether compassion is always safe, I strongly doubt. But it is certainly the case that if national patriotism is to have any moral claim on us, it will be based on this recognition: ‘The nation is a fact, and a fact is not an absolute value’ [Weil]. That there should be any form of solidarity is something for which we have to take moral responsibility; it requires our will to recover the particular out of the universal. Perhaps only compassion can draw the gifted and the able back from the great world capitals and universities to the regional and local communities from which they sprang, to put the gifts and skills which they possess at the service of their neighbors.” (319).

National and local communities may be contingent (though such contingency should by no means belie the fact that some of these communities are configured in better and worse ways!), but they are an essential context for neighbor love and are an important good. O’Donovan notes in closing: “Evil are the conflicts of nations, but many times more evil are the conflicts that oppose communities without the identities or disciplines of nations. …We may well shed tears for the nation-state and lament the fragility of its good” (320).

If O’Donovan is right–and in some important respects I suspect that he is–then American Christians may well be able to celebrate Independence Day as a humble and grateful acknowledgement of the goods of place and relationship into which they are called to live alongside and serve their neighbors.

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DOMA and Distributive Justice

Amidst the flurry of commentary following yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions in Hollingsworth v. Perry (California’s Prop 8 case) and Windsor v. United States (DOMA’s constitutionality), I may as well toss in two cents on one small aspect of this discussion. To be clear, I’m not speaking about the many, many, important issues that these cases raise (federalism, the ends and limits of law, the role of equality in the 5th Amendment, etc.). Instead, I want to reflect briefly and rather un-originally on the classical notion of distributive justice.

Aristotle’s familiar account of distributive justice in Nicomachean Ethics focuses on equality: it is distributively just to treat equals as equal and unequals as unequal, according to the proper standard of merit. The distribution of goods or honors in a polity is “just” when it follows such a scheme. This is why we don’t bat an eyelash when a serious athlete consumes quantities of calories that would put a sedentary academic on the fast-track to obesity. The proportionality of feeding the marathoner more than the professor communicates truth about caloric needs: it would be unjust to treat unequals as if they were equal.

It is just this sort of argument that undergirds the reasoning of important civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education. When the “standard of merit” for access to goods in a community is inextricably tied to simply being human, then legally imposed segregation is deeply unjust because it treats equals as if they are unequal. It communicates falsehood through its disproportion.

I think it is this sort of assumption that animates the equal protection aspects of yesterday’s decision about DOMA (and as a disclaimer, I have only read portions of the decision). But the Court goes further than this and clouds the justice issue. Justice Kennedy, citing D.O.A. v. Moreno, writes: “The Constitution’s guarantee of equality ‘must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot’ justify disparate treatment of that group.” (Windsor, 20). Kennedy continues, arguing that there is “strong evidence” of DOMA “having the purpose and effect of disapproval of that class [homosexual couples].” (Windsor, 20-21). What I find interesting (and indeed problematic) is Kennedy’s insufficient attention to when and why social approval or disapproval may be justified. His opinion in Lawrence v. Texas made a similar move: moral disapprobation of particular behaviors was, ipso facto, treated as irrational prejudice.

It seems that there is a need for discussions about access to marriage (and indeed about most morality policy issues) to be clearer and more explicit about the standards of merit relevant to the sorts of goods at issue. (To be clear, raising this question the way I am in the context of Windsor requires tabling the state law questions that are actually central to Kennedy’s argument.) Because many laws differentiate between groups of people defined according to some discriminating criterion (tax brackets based on income, those who drive through red lights vs. green, etc.), clarity on this is essential.

Is Windsor a “win” for justice? I think Aristotle would answer that it depends on whether it treats equals as equal and unequals as unequal according to the relevant standard of merit. If moral norms and historical social practices must be excluded as “standards of merit” when assessing the behaviors and legal relationships surrounding marriage, then Windsor (and its expected social and political progeny) should clearly be counted as a win. If such exclusions are too sweeping (and I think both sides, if pushed, would agree that they are), then more clarity on relevant standards—such as shareable norms like those of natural law—will be needed in order to wisely assess it.

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