At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Christmas, Christianity, and Western Civilization

posted by Jack Kerwick

Christmas, unlike any other Western holiday, is ubiquitous.  It is as impossible for an inhabitant of the Western world to escape Christmas as it is impossible for a person to escape breathing while remaining alive.

For this reason, Christmas is a microscopic expression of Christianity’s relationship to the civilization to which it gave rise.

Both religious and irreligious alike celebrate Christmas.  Few and far between are the residences, businesses, and even government buildings that aren’t adorned with at least some decorative reminders of the season.  Christmas music can be heard emanating from every conceivable medium while many television networks and movie theaters are taken over by Christmas-themed programs and films.

While it is true that many of the most widely recognized holiday symbols—talking snowmen, flying reindeer, Christmas trees, candy canes, elves, and even Santa Claus—are “secularized,” the religious roots of the holiday are, or at least should be, unmistakable.

For starters, just the word “holiday” itself stems from holy day, a day that is supposed to be set aside for prayerful reflection.  That, in the Western world, no holiday is as big of a deal as that of Christmas serves as a reminder, however subtle, of the significance of the holiness of the occasion.

Secondly, “Christmas” means the Mass of Christ.  With every mention of the word, then, the name of Christ—the “reason for the season”—is invoked.

Thirdly, the very notion, expressed wherever there’s an expression of Christmas, that Christmas is a cause for celebration, a time for miracles, and a time to rejoice in song and gift-giving, derives from no other source other than the traditional Christian belief that God gave us the greatest gift of Himself through the miracle of the Incarnation.  Christmas lights, the stars that we place at the tops of our trees, and even candy canes remind us of this: lights signify the Light of Christ; the Christmas tree star beckons back to the star that guided the Magi as they searched for the birth place of baby Jesus; and candy canes are designed to resemble the staff of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, its hardness signifying Jesus, the Rock, and its colors, red and white, pointing, respectively, toward the blood and purity of Christ.

Finally, we mustn’t forget that Santa Claus, the most popular and visible of all “secular” symbols of Christmas, is rooted in the historical person of Saint Nicholas, a fourth century Christian bishop who, inspired by the example of his Lord and Savior, lived a life of selflessness.

Just as the stuff of which Christmas is made hearken us back to its Christian roots, so too does the stuff of which contemporary Western civilization is made hearken us back to its Christian roots.

Below are just some of our taken-for-granted ideas and institutions that are unmistakably Christian in origin:

(1)Each and every human being, irrespective of circumstances, possesses an inviolable dignity by virtue of having been created in the image of God. This idea is the core of a moral vision that, unlike its predecessors, extended its liberties and duties to all human beings.  The tribalism of old had been eclipsed.

(2)Because of (1), we have a duty to extend charity to all, including total strangers, and even enemies: Overwhelmingly, charity is a distinctively Christian virtue. This explains why, even at present, charity remains a predominantly Christian phenomenon.

Anthony Esolen, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, writes: “Hindus do not send holy men into foreign lands to feed the hungry and house the naked: they will not do so for the pariahs in their own land” (emphasis mine). He adds: “Buddhists, practicing benevolent detachment from the world, do not do so.  Muslims, who conquer by force, and who reject natural law on the grounds that it ‘fetters’ Allah, are required to take care of their own, but they ignore everyone else.”

(3)The world (universe) is not cyclical, as the ancient pagans held, but rational and orderly.  It is also not a vale of tears, but, as God declared it, “good.” Thus, nature could be explored and should be explored.  From these Christian suppositions, science, with all of its wondrous, life-saving technologies, took flight.

(4)The separation of “Church” and “State” sprung from the Christian’s rejection of State worship and, of course, Jesus’ admonition to pay unto Caesar his due, while giving God what is owed to Him. 

(5)Many of the West’s most historic philosophers, painters, composers, authors, and scientists derived their inspiration, their presuppositions regarding the characters of ultimate reality, knowledge, religion, and morality from the Christian worldview that they inherited.  In the absence of Christianity, it is as inconceivable that our culture would be so much as remotely recognizable to itself as it is inconceivable that we would still be celebrating Christmas.

So, this Christmas, let’s not only remember that Jesus made possible the occasion for this holiday.  Let’s remember as well that He made possible the very civilization, the most awesome of civilizations, that we call our own.

A Tale of Two Cops and the Many Brinsleys Who Murdered Them

posted by Jack Kerwick

“He was an amazing man.  He was the best father and husband and friend.”

This is how a friend described Rafael Ramos, one of the two NYPD officers who was ambushed and murdered by Eric Garner and Michael Brown supporter, Ismaiiyl Brinsley.

Ramos was sitting in a patrol car with his partner, Wenjian Liu, when Brinsley snuck up and blasted both in their heads.  The double-murder was premeditated: Hours earlier, Brinsley made the following announcement on Instagram: “I’m putting wings on pigs today.  They take 1 of ours, let’s take 2 of theirs.”

Shortly afterwards, the cop-killer turned the gun on himself.  Unfortunately, though, his miserable existence ended too late, as his victims were already gone.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton summed up the grisly event: “They were, quite simply, assassinated—targeted for their uniform.”

Ramos was a married man with two children, a 13 year-old and a child in college. He was an active member of his church and spent his spare time counseling married couples.  Not long ago, Ramos—who joined the force in 2012—was a school safety officer.

Officer Liu had been on the force for seven years and had gotten married but two months ago.

At Christmas, two good men, community and family men who, for pay a fraction of that of the Al Sharptons, Barack Obamas, and Eric Holders of the world, regularly risked their lives by entering America’s war-zones—like the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where they were slain—have been taken by one of the hordes of demons who very recently were calling for “dead cops” in the streets of New York.

Their families and communities, their children, have been devastated.

Yet it isn’t just on the hands of Brinsley that their blood is to be found.

The same media that for decades has labored tirelessly to promote a fiction of perpetual white oppression and black victimhood and that, most recently, elevated thugs Michael Brown and Eric Garner to the stature of heroes—whether sacrificial lambs or freedom fighters—are implicated in the murder of these two police officers.

Like Pontius Pilate who deluded himself into thinking that he could “wash his hands” of his part in Jesus’ death, so too do Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, Eric Holder, Bill DiBlasio, and every other politician, “civil rights activist,” and commentator who did their part to fuel the inferno of anti-police rhetoric think that they can now wash their hands of their responsibility for the murders of Officers Ramos and Liu.

They lie.

Obama is especially contemptible, for he could’ve been using his unique position to demand—repeatedly, loudly, unequivocally demand—that the hordes of black rioters and thugs in streets in cities around the country renounce all violence or else. 

He didn’t even come close to doing anything at all like this.  Far from it: Like the good (or bad) “community organizer” that he has always been, Obama exacerbated racial tensions by reinforcing the patent nonsense that white “racism” remains alive and well and police prey on blacks.

It’s a lie and Obama—among the most privileged human beings to have ever walked the planet—knows it.

Neither Obama nor any of the pro-Brown/Garner crowd in Washington, academia, or the media ever once decried the criminals—not “demonstrators” or “protestors,” but criminals—who targeted the property and person of innocents with bloodthirsty violence.  Never did they denounce the legions of thugs shouting for the blood of “cops.”

Now, however, Brinsley’s accomplices and enablers are waxing indignant over his murderous violence.  All too predictably, the media are trying to depict Brinsley as a “mentally ill” person with a “troubled” past, an anomaly.

But the (thankfully) late Ismaiiyl Brinsley was no more or less ill or troubled than the Brinsleys in the precincts of politics, academia, and the media who encouraged him. The only difference between the former and the latter is that while those who regard police as “racists” or “armed enforcers” of “the State” talk the talk, Brinsley actually walked the walk.

And two good men are now gone and their families devastated.

Natural Law, Positive Law, Rights and Duties

posted by Jack Kerwick

In the wake of the Eric Garner case, some libertarians have urged us to revisit the topic of natural law, a “higher” moral law that supplies an objective standard of justice for “positive law,” the law(s) posited (or made) by human beings.

Garner, it’s been argued, had a “natural right” to dispose of his property (his loose cigarettes) as long as he observed the “axiom” of “non-aggression,” the principle forbidding people from violating the rights of others.  Since, allegedly, Garner “aggressed” against nobody, he was guilty of no wrong doing.

Some thoughts:

(1)As far as the lifespan of natural law theory goes, it has only been recently that natural law has been identified with a doctrine of “natural rights.” That’s correct: Though belief in natural law extends back millennia to antiquity, it wasn’t until about 600 years or so ago, during the late medieval era, that the idiom of “natural rights” sprang up on the scene.  Prior to this, natural law theorists from the Greeks and Romans to Jews, Christians, and Muslims (and beyond) viewed natural law as prescribing duties, not rights.

The Catholic ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre informs us that prior to this juncture, there had been “no expression in any ancient or medieval language correctly translated by our expression ‘a right’ [.]”  The notion of “a right,” he continues, “lacks any means of expression in Hebrew, Greek, Latin or Arabic,” whether “classical or medieval,” prior to the fifteenth century.  Nor is there any word or phrase for “a right” to be found in Old English.  And it wasn’t until the late 19thcentury that Japanese had an equivalent of it.

If there really is such a thing as natural (or “human”) rights, no one prior to the fifteenth century knew about them.

Nor could they have known about them: rights-claims are always only meaningful within the context of a system of culturally-specific institutions.  As MacIntyre notes, in the absence of such institutions, “the making of a claim to a right would be like presenting a check for payment in a social order that lacked the institution of money.”

The 19th century Oxford philosopher, T.H. Green, makes a similar point when he writes that without “that complex of institutions” that we call “society,”  “I literally should not have a life to call my own [.]”  Green’s point is that “it is only as members of a society…recognizing common interests and objects” that we become “moralized.”

The “patron saint” of conservatism, Edmund Burke, hammered home this thesis when combating the French revolutionaries and their cries of “the Rights of Man.”  Burke knew full well that it is “the civil social man, and no other”—i.e. flesh and blood, socially embodied beings, not a bunch of abstract, pre-political rights-bearers descending from some mythical “state of nature”—that is the subject matter of law and politics.  “Men cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together,” he declared.

Since “civil society” is “the offspring of convention, that convention must be its law.”  What this means is that every “sort of legislative, judicial, or executor power” are the “creatures” of convention.  No social institution “can have” any “being in any other state of things,” Burke says.  It’s not possible, he maintains, for “any man [to] claim, under the conventions of civil society, rights which do not so much as suppose its existence” and which may even be “absolutely repugnant to it [.]”

(2)The problem with the “axiom” of “non-aggression”—what is otherwise known as the “No Harm” principle—is that it is not an axiom at all.  An axiom is a self-evident proposition. That I’m awake and that Earth is more than five minutes old are all self-evident propositions.  But the proposition that the only time that anyone—including government—is justified in using force is when it is necessary to resist force initiated by an aggressor against the person and/or property of another is anything but self-evident.

And because of this, it is can’t be the starting point of an argument; it needs an argument.

The great utilitarian philosopher, John S. Mill, enunciated the non-aggression or No Harm principle when he remarked that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection [.]”  He is adamant that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others.”

However, the 19th century conservative theorist James Fitzjames Stephen noted that this principle, if true, would discredit every religious and moral tradition that has ever existed.  “Now, in the innumerable majority of cases,” Stephen remarks, “disapprobation, or the moral sanction, has nothing whatever to do with self-protection.”

In fact, even John Locke—no slight figure in libertarian thought—held that force can and should be applied to individuals even when they are not directly harming anyone.  Roman Catholics and atheists are two notable examples of groups that he exempts from measures designed to foster “toleration.”

(3)Even if we assume that the libertarian argument above vis-à-vis the Garner case works, it most certainly does not follow that Garner wasn’t in the wrong.  Outside of the French radicals of the 18th century, the overwhelming majority of natural law thinkers, including natural rights theorists, have recognized a moral duty—a duty rooted in the natural law—to obey the positive law—even when the latter is unjust.

When a law is intolerably unjust, there is a moral duty—a duty rooted in the natural law—to disobey it.  But even here, the disobedience must be civil, i.e. it mustn’t involve “any degree of public mischief or private injury,” as William Blackstone put it.”  This means the disobedient must be willing to submit to penalties.

St. Paul wrote that since “there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God,” “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed [.]”

Thomas Aquinas, a “rock star” of the medieval era and among the greatest of Western philosophers generally, said that an unjust law “is not a law, absolutely speaking, but rather a perversion of law”(italics added) [.]  However, a perversion of law,  even when it emanates from a tyrant, still contains “something in the nature of a law,” for “it is an ordinance made by a superior to his subjects, and aims at being obeyed by them [.]”

An unjust law “has the nature, not of law, but of violence,” but it nevertheless “retains some appearance of law” in “being framed by one who is in power [.]”  Thus, even an unjust law “is derived from the eternal law; for all power is from the Lord God” (italics added) [.]

To be clear, natural lawyers have always insisted that there are unjust laws that demand disobedience.  But there are two things to bear in mind here:

First, the law in question, like a law requiring murder, must be wildly offensive to conscience.

Second, the disobedience should be open and conducted in a manner that is consistent with respect for law as a whole (unless, of course, the whole system is corrupt, in which case revolution may be the only option).  This way, the disobedience distinguishes the disobedient from cowardly criminals while drawing the public to the injustice of the specific law.

The early Christian martyrs, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “civil rights” activists of the 50’s and 60’s are among the scores of believers in natural law from throughout history who civilly disobeyed unjust laws.

Eric Garner is not to be included in their number—or even mentioned in the same breath.

 

 

 

 

Eric Garner and the Natural Law: What To Do When a Law is Unjust?

posted by Jack Kerwick

Eric Garner, many libertarians seem to think, was innocent as far as the natural law is concerned.

“Natural law” is an ethical tradition with an illustrious pedigree stretching back millennia.  From this perspective, natural law is a transcendent moral order that provides the standard of justice for “positive law,” i.e. human legislation: If a human law contradicts the natural law, it is unjust.

The law forbidding the sale of loose cigarettes that Garner violated (repeatedly) is unjust, for it violated Garner’s “natural right to dispose of his own property (‘loosies’) at will,” as one libertarian writer put it.

Let’s assume for the moment that the above argument is correct and that the law forbidding the sale of untaxed cigarettes violates the natural law.  So what?  One of two implications follows from this assumption:  (1) Garner acted rightly, for there is no moral duty to comply with an unjust law; or (2) Garner acted wrongly in breaking the law, for even though it is unjust, there is a moral duty to comply with, or at least not resist, laws enacted by recognized authorities (like legislators).

Neither line of reasoning bodes well for Garner’s natural law supporters.

The problem with the argument in (2) should be self-evident: If Garner had a duty to refrain from breaking the law, though it was unjust, then he acted not only illegally, but immorally. In resisting arrest, then, he was in the wrong.  Why, though, would a libertarian and Garner supporter possibly want to make this argument, when it is so clearly harmful to their case?  The injustice of the law forbidding the sale of untaxed cigarettes is a reason to abolish the law.  It is irrelevant to the Garner case.

The argument in (1), however, is also flawed in that the conclusion—Garner acted justly—does not follow from the premise—there is no moral or natural duty to comply with an unjust law.  Few and far between are those natural law thinkers who would contend otherwise, and the number of history’s great natural law theorists who would contend otherwise is approximately zero.

Socrates, for example, refused to disobey even the law under which he was unjustly convicted and sentenced to death. He implicitly contracted to abide by a system of law from which he reaped a lifetime’s worth of benefits, Socrates argued.  It would be immoral to disobey this law, just because he now is harmed by it.

A good person and citizen, he told his friend, must “do what is his city and country order him” to do or else strive to “change their view of what is just [.]”

In his magisterial, Commentaries on the Laws of England, William Blackstone writes that “in relation to those laws which…forbid only such things as are not mala in se (wrong in themselves), but mala prohibita (crimes, because forbidden)”—like peddling untaxed “loosies,” say—our moral obligation is to either comply with the law or, “in case of our breach of those laws,” submit to the penalty. Whichever course of action a person chooses, “his conscience will be clear [.]”

Blackstone further notes that if everyone went about breaking those laws that they disliked—“if every such law were [viewed as] a snare for the conscience of the subject”—then “the multitude of penal laws in a state would not only be looked upon as impolitic, but would also be [seen as] a very wicked thing [.]”

He further adds that “disobedience to the law” is “an offence against conscience” only if it “involves…any degree of public mischief or private injury [.]”

Thomas Aquinas, a “rock star” of the medieval era and among the greatest of Western philosophers generally, said is that an unjust law “is not a law, absolutely speaking, but rather a perversion of law” (italics added) [.]  However, a perversion of law,  even when it emanates from a tyrant, still contains “something in the nature of a law,” for “it is an ordinance made by a superior to his subjects, and aims at being obeyed by them [.]”

An unjust law “has the nature, not of law, but of violence,” but it nevertheless “retains some appearance of law” in “being framed by one who is in power [.]”  Thus, even an unjust law “is derived from the eternal law; for all power is from the Lord God” (italics added) [.]

To be clear, natural lawyers have always insisted that there are unjust laws that demand disobedience.  But there are two things to bear in mind here:

First, the law in question, like a law requiring murder, must be wildly offensive to conscience.

Second, the disobedience should be open and conducted in a manner that is consistent with respect for law as a whole.  This way, the disobedience distinguishes the disobedient from cowardly criminals while drawing the public to the injustice of the specific law.

The early Christian martyrs, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “civil rights” activists of the 50’s and 60’s are among the scores of believers in natural law from throughout history who civilly disobeyed unjust laws.

Eric Garner is not to be included in their number—or even mentioned in the same breath.

 

 

Previous Posts

Christmas, Christianity, and Western Civilization
Christmas, unlike any other Western holiday, is ubiquitous.  It is as impossible for an inhabitant of the Western world to escape Christmas as it is impossible for a person to escape breathing while remaining alive. For this reason, Christmas is a microscopic expression of Christianity’s relat

posted 11:29:27am Dec. 23, 2014 | read full post »

A Tale of Two Cops and the Many Brinsleys Who Murdered Them
“He was an amazing man.  He was the best father and husband and friend.” This is how a friend described Rafael Ramos, one of the two NYPD officers who was ambushed and murdered by Eric Garner and Michael Brown supporter, Ismaiiyl Brinsley. Ramos was sitting in a patrol car with his partne

posted 2:47:16pm Dec. 22, 2014 | read full post »

Natural Law, Positive Law, Rights and Duties
In the wake of the Eric Garner case, some libertarians have urged us to revisit the topic of natural law, a “higher” moral law that supplies an objective standard of justice for “positive law,” the law(s) posited (or made) by human beings. Garner, it’s been argued, had a “natural righ

posted 11:07:58am Dec. 22, 2014 | read full post »

Eric Garner and the Natural Law: What To Do When a Law is Unjust?
Eric Garner, many libertarians seem to think, was innocent as far as the natural law is concerned. “Natural law” is an ethical tradition with an illustrious pedigree stretching back millennia.  From this perspective, natural law is a transcendent moral order that provides the standard of jus

posted 8:33:32pm Dec. 14, 2014 | read full post »

More on the Eric Garner Grand Jury Decision
In this column, I recently argued in favor of a grand jury’s refusal to indict Officer Dan Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner.  To my dismay (and, frankly, shock), a great many “conservatives” and “libertarians,” I’ve had the great misfortune to discover, disagree vehemently with the

posted 7:56:58pm Dec. 09, 2014 | read full post »


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