At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

“Racism”: Requiem for a Word

posted by Jack Kerwick

This was originally published at Intellectual Conservative on February 12, 2009.  In light of the national farce that has engulfed the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, I thought it may not be such a bad idea to reprint it here:

In St. John’s gospel, the evangelist says of the wondrous deeds of his Master that so great are they in number that not all of the books in the entire world could contain them. It seems something similar could be said with respect to the virtually infinite claims of “racism” to which we are incessantly exposed.

But what exactly is “racism”? 

It seems to me that while each admits of a multiplicity of variations, there are essentially but four definitions or models of “racism”: (1) “‘Racism’ as ‘Racial Hatred’”; (2) “‘Racism’ as ‘Racial Discrimination’”; (3) “‘Racism’ as ‘Doctrine of Innate Inferiority’”; (4) “‘Racism’ as ‘Institutional Racism’”.  For convenience’s sake, unless otherwise stated, I will refer to each model in terms of the following abbreviations: (1) RH; (2) RD; (3) II; and (4) IR.  However it is specifically understood, in the popular consciousness as well as in the precincts of contemporary politics, the media, and academia, there is something on the order of a consensus that “racism” is something at once pervasive and immoral.

In what follows, while exploring these four accounts of “racism,” I establish two things.  First, they are mutually distinct and irreducible to one another—i.e., “racism” isn’t the unitary phenomenon that the singularity of the term suggests.  Second, and most importantly, each model, beset as it is with perhaps insurmountable difficulties, fails to accommodate the conventional conception of “racism.”  Because of spatial constraints, however, I will have to consider only some of these problems.   

“‘Racism’ as ‘Racial Hatred’” (RH)

 On its face, this seems as obvious a definition of “racism” as there is.  Yet intellectual seriousness demands that we look beyond surface appearances.  When we heed this call, what we discover is a model of “racism” that gives rise to more questions than answers, questions that, I submit, it cannot adequately address.

The key question with which proponents of this model have to contend is the following: Is hatred always immoral?

To my knowledge, in spite of its central importance to the RH model, this question has never been raised by any of its proponents.  It is not hard to see why.

In posing this question, the defender of RH is thrown onto the horns of a dilemma from which there is no escape.  If he grabs the first horn and takes the position that racial hatred is immoral because hatred itself is immoral, then the fact that the hatred is racially oriented is incidental and, as far as its moral worth is concerned, irrelevant: it is the hatred, regardless of the reason(s) underlying it, that is immoral. “Racism,” thus, loses the distinctive moral significance that had been attributed to it.

If, on the other hand, our proponent of RH opts for the second horn and denies (what most religious and moral traditions outside of Christianity deny) that hatred itself is not always impermissible, but only racially-oriented hatred, then he risks similarly relegating “racism” to the moral periphery, so to speak. Racial hatred is usually condemned on the grounds that race is as irrelevant a characteristic as eye color or left handedness and, thus, undeserving of hatred.  But if this is what makes racial hatred immoral, then it is not racial hatred itself that is objectionable, but hatred invoked by anything irrelevant.  In keeping with our examples, racial hatred—“racism”—is neither more nor less objectionable than hatred of brown-eyed and left-handed people.

So, regardless of which horn the defender of RH embraces, he inevitably marginalizes the distinctive moral significance typically attributed to “racism.”

“Racism” as “Racial Discrimination” (RD)

The first thing to note here is that this model in no way relies upon the forgoing and, in fact, denies the latter: “hatred” is but one motive among many in which a person could engage in racial discrimination, but it is in no wise necessary for it. 

Secondly, there is scarcely a person with an iota of intelligence willing to deny that “racial discrimination” can, under some circumstances, at any rate, be permissible. Who objects to the owners of Chinese restaurants employing Asian workers so as to add an air of authenticity to the atmosphere?  Or who would object to EpcotCenterat Disney World hiring only people of the related ethnic backgrounds to work at its various “Lands?” In fact, the most zealous of “anti-racists” are especially disposed to favor racially discriminatory practices under what they deem to be the appropriate conditions.

“Affirmative action”—race-based policies favoring non-whites, particularly blacks, over whites—is a legalized form of racial discrimination. Whether this type of racial discrimination is justified or not isn’t a question with which I am currently concerned. The point, rather, is that the “anti-racists” who demand “affirmative action,” asserting not just that it is morally permissible but morally obligatory, acknowledge, then, that racial discrimination can be morally legitimate.  But insofar as they unequivocally condemn “racism,” they concede, however implicitly, that “racism” and “racial discrimination” are two distinct phenomena, the one at all times immoral, the other not at all times immoral.

In response, it could be said that it isn’t always “racist” to discriminate on the basis of race, but only when race is as “irrelevant” as eye color or left handedness.

There are two quick counter-responses to this objection.

First, the notion of “relevance” is anything but self-interpreting.  A white employer may concede that any given black applicant is just as qualified as any given white applicant to do the job that he is searching to fill.  However, he may, reasonably enough, find the races of the respective applicants to be of extreme “relevance” if he is concerned about avoiding the astronomical costs in time, money, and reputation that would accrue to him in the event that, upon hiring the white applicant, the black applicant files a frivolous “discrimination” suit against him.  Or maybe for fear of merely being suspected of being a “racist” by a prospective black employee he may decide to avoid hiring him. On the other hand, a black employer, though aware that the job description in question is race-neutral, may nonetheless prefer a black candidate over a white one because he suspects that the latter will ultimately not be as harmed by being denied this one opportunity because of the more abundant opportunities that he thinks exists for whites. 

Second, if we accept that racial discrimination is immoral when race is as “irrelevant” as eye-color or left-handedness, then, as is the case when “racism” is equated with “racial hatred,” “racism” loses its distinctive moral significance, to say nothing of its special awfulness, for it is the “irrelevance” of the characteristic being exploited for discriminatory purposes and not the characteristic itself that assumes moral import. 

“Racism” as “Doctrine of Innate Inferiority” (II)

The belief that the members of another race are innately inferior to one’s own no more need be accompanied by either hatred or a disposition to discriminate against such persons than hatred for the members of other races and a disposition to discriminate against them need be attended by the belief that they are innately inferior to one’s own.  These ideas, in other words, stand or fall all on their own.

So, if the belief in the innate inferiority of races other than one’s own need not translate into bitterness and cruelty toward their members, then how or why can the mere possession of this belief be immoral?

Now is neither the time nor place to explore the complex relationship between belief and action, but suffice it to note that it is to our actions primarily that we ascribe the properties of “moral” and “immoral.” Our beliefs, we ordinarily think, may be “true” or “false,” “correct” or “incorrect,” but not “moral” or “immoral.”

Take, for example, the belief in “equality.” As the (black) author, Thomas Sowell, noted in his book, Black Rednecks, White Liberals, this belief has been enlisted in the service of such just and noble causes as the abolition of slavery, but it has also been used to justify the worst sorts of abuses in societies throughout the world.  What seems clear is that there is no way to ascribe any moral weight to the belief on the basis of what has been done in its name.

As I said, the relation between belief and conduct is a vexed question, and I am not sure whether I am altogether convinced that beliefs in themselves are devoid of moral value. However, one powerful consideration in favor of the view discussed here is the phenomenon with which mostly all of us are all too familiar. As we grow older, most of us realize that much of what we previously took for granted is false. In fact, in looking back over the history of our nation and the world, we realize (or at least believe) that much of what whole peoples in past eras and other places have thought is simply false. If the possession of just one false belief, to say nothing of many such beliefs, is sufficient to convict one of immorality, then there is not one among us who can escape condemnation. Ptolemy was no less immoral for having held that the Earth was at the center of the universe than was Hitler for believing that the Jews were the ruin of Germany.

The proponent of the II model of “racism” is in a dilemma. If he concedes that beliefs are of no moral import, then he must admit that “racism” (as he defines it), contrary to conventional wisdom, is not a moral phenomenon. If, on the other hand, he maintains that false beliefs are immoral by virtue of their falsity, then like his counterparts, the proponents of the RH and RD models of “racism,” he robs “racism” of its distinctive and particularly dreadful character, for it is the erroneous character of this conception of “racism,” and not its substance per se, to which he objects.   

From this dilemma I foresee no escape. 

“Institutional Racism” (IR)

In order to sustain their charge, in the face of an ever shrinking number of instances of overt racial hostility toward blacks, that “racism” remains a nearly insurmountable obstacle to black success, the proponents of the IR model have shifted their focus off of individual white “racists” and onto something more abstract, less visible, but potentially much more formidable: society’s fundamental institutions.

The reasoning here is basically as follows.  While individual whites may be (at least) consciously filled with nothing but good will toward blacks (and other minorities), the very institutions of which American life is constituted and within the framework of which its citizens’ worldview(s) have been formed are profoundly “racist.”

So, “racism,” then, doesn’t require hatred of other races, a willingness to discriminate against them, or a conscious belief in their innate inferiority.  In ways of which the best of intentioned whites are utterly unaware, their society’s institutions, like the Devil in some imaginings of the Christian narrative, determine their every wicked thought, word, and deed. The comic Flip Wilson used to say when he succumbed to temptation: “The Devil made me do it.”  Apparently, whites can say when others accuse them of “racism”: “Social institutions made me do it.” 

This theory of “racism” is immune to refutation.  This isn’t because it is true, though. It is immune to refutation for the same reason that Solipsism, the theory that only one’s own mind is real and everything else but figments of it is impervious to refutation: it is designed to absorb all criticisms. There are, however, damaging claims that can be made against it.

First, institutions, though human, are nevertheless impersonal entities.  The three branches of government, the family, and boxing, are alike institutions. To impersonal entities it is improper to ascribe moral characteristics, whether positive or negative.  The persons who engage in those institutions may be “just” or “unjust,” “virtuous” or “vicious,” “right” or “wrong,” “racist” or not, but the institutions themselves are “useful” or “useless,” “efficient” or “inefficient,” “antiquated” or “novel,” “necessary” or “gratuitous,” etc.

In other words, this model of “racism” involves a fundamental confusion of categories. It makes no more sense to speak of an impersonal institution as being “just” or “racist” as it does to speak of an impersonal knife in these terms.

Second, the IR model relies on persistent statistical disparities between blacks and whites with respect to a number of social indicia—rates of crime, illegitimacy, unemployment, education, incarceration, etc.—where the former is at a disadvantage relative to the latter. 

Analyzes of this data are in no short supply, so I won’t bother reiterating in detail what has been said already.  But plenty of respectable thinkers, black, white, and other, have shown that the categories “black” and “white” are fictional monoliths that obscure crucial intra-racial differences that, when taken into account, produce a dramatically different picture of race relations from that painted by the proponents of the IR model. For instance, when blacks and whites of the same description—e.g., married, college-educated, etc.—are compared, such statistical disparities nearly vanish completely, and in some instances, blacks fare better than whites.  Economist and nationally syndicated columnist Walter E. Williams, for example—a black man—showed over ten years ago that for every $1.00 earned by college educated white females, their black counterparts earned $1.25!

The IR model of “racism,” like the others, flounders.


The list of the aforementioned models or accounts of “racism” I contend is comprehensive. Every notion of “racism” is some variation or other of one or more of these four models. I argued that each is distinct from and irreducible to the others, and none of them are adequate. Where does this leave the concept of “racism?” 

It is undeniable that racially-oriented injustice is a real and dreadful phenomenon that has plagued our world for as long as there have been distinct racial groups.  Yet the term “racism”—understood as denoting a phenomenon that is at once pervasive and immoral—is a word whose time has expired.  It should be retired, for it possesses no clear meaning and it is much more often than not employed as a rhetorical device whereby whites are bullied and intimidated into making concessions of various sorts to the uncompromising demands of our “politically correct” orthodoxy.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

The Evil of the Racism Industrial Complex

posted by Jack Kerwick

That everyone in Americanow knows the names of Trayvon Davis and George Zimmerman is a tragic commentary on the times.  It is tragic because it is a bold-faced confirmation that the Racism Industrial Complex (RIC) is the hegemonic power of our generation. 

The agents and officers of RIC include the majority of journalists and commentators in corporate media; most academics in the liberal arts and humanities departments of America’s colleges and universities; entertainers; and politicians. In concert, they labor fast and furiously to ensconce within the American consciousness the idea that blacks and other racial minorities are perpetual victims of “white racism.”

But because it has become all but impossible to any longer find instances of white-on-black brutality to exploit, the agents of RIC, from sheer desperation, have resorted to creating, not just “white racists,” but whites.  In spite of the fact that no one who has seen any photographs of George Zimmerman would think to identify him as a Caucasian, and even though Zimmerman himself identifies as Hispanic, RIC agents insist on depicting him as white. 

The fatal confrontation that transpired in Sanford, Floridabetween Zimmerman and Martin was a confrontation between two “persons of color,” two racial minorities.  However, precisely because the story of a brown-on-black attack frustrates the aims of RIC, the story is transformed into one that serves the industry’s purposes.

Not only, however, is it false to describe Zimmerman as a white person (and, more ridiculously, a “white Hispanic”); it is just as irresponsible to claim that it was some disdain for blacks that motivated him to pursue Martin. At the very least, contrary to what RIC agents would have us think, there is zero evidence to think that Martin’s color factored at all into Zimmerman’s now fateful decision.

From everything that we have been able to gather thus far, it appears that Zimmerman did nothing illegal.  This is why those authorities at the local level who have investigated this situation did not arrest him.  But this is not good enough for RIC agents.

An entire industry is mobilized against Zimmerman, demanding his arrest—and, with it, his conviction. And what if authorities do not concede its demands?  Its agents have already answered this question: unless Zimmerman is arrested and convicted for the shooting death of Martin, there will be violence.

For approximately the last half-of-a-century or so, American history has been episodically punctuated by eruptions of black riots.  Such riots almost always arise as responses to some unrequited grievance or other, whether imagined or real.  Perhaps it is because we have become habituated to this phenomenon that many Americans are all too ready to acquiesce in it.  Unfortunately, Republican politicians and establishment right-leaning commentators are no exception here.  Whether it is nationally syndicated talk radio show host Mike Gallagher or Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, corporate “conservative” media personalities appear to be just as willing as anyone else to permit injustice as long as it placates the leviathan that is the Racism Industrial Complex.

By now, most reasonable people who have been following the Martin/Zimmerman story are nearly, if not totally, convinced, that Zimmerman did not act in violation of the law on the night that he shot Martin. This would include the likes of Gallagher and O’Reilly.  Yet there doesn’t seem to be any readiness on their part to speak out against the injustice that is about to befall a man who, by their own lights, is innocent of any wrongdoing.  Unless Zimmerman is arrested, tried, and convicted, they have promised us, there will be, as O’Reilly put it on his show on Monday April 2, “racial violence”—i.e. black violence. 

Peaceful co-existence between blacks and whites, or maybe just between decent people and indecent people of all colors, is difficult enough as long as the Racism Industrial Complex maintains its monopoly over the national “dialogue” on race-related matters.  Peaceful co-existence becomes impossible once the agents of this industry can undermine the historical achievement that is the American legal system by simply threatening violence. 

As the great conservative theorist Edmund Burke famously said, “The only thing that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Strangely, when it comes to fighting Islamic evil doers over seas, there is no cost that those in the Republican-dominated media are willing to spare.  But when it comes to those right here at home in the Racism Industrial Complex who are doing the Devil’s work, these same people assume a much more reserved posture.  This is more than a bit ironic, for the threat to American civilization posed by the agents of RIC eclipses any that Islamic jihadists throw up.

None of what has been said here should be mistaken for hyperbole: the Racism Industrial Complex is truly villainous.  But because it has been with us for all too long, we have become desensitized to its character.  Think about it: for the purpose of serving themselves, RIC agents are willing to sacrifice innocent human beings, to say nothing of the well being of their country, so as to stoke the flames of the most inflammatory of topics—“racism.”  There is no lie that they aren’t willing to purvey, no distortion that they won’t commit, if it serves this end.

This is evil.  And everyone, both those within RIC as well as those who would comply with its wickedness through their silence, has innocent blood on their hands. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 






Morality and Language

posted by Jack Kerwick

As Americans, we have a tendency to speak of morality as if it were one and the same thing for all people at all places and at all times.  The popular notion that “everyone knows right from wrong” is a function of this propensity.  It also manifests itself by way of other popular expressions: “There is right and there is wrong;” “Moral values are absolute;” “All human beings have rights;” “Everyone everywhere values liberty,” and “We are all equal,” to reference but a few.      

The pervasiveness of this tendency aside, it is misplaced.  There is indeed a very real sense in which it can be said that human beings are moral beings.  However, this is just like saying that human beings are linguistic beings: just as the linguistic realm encompasses a rich, even a dizzying variety, of mutually distinct and incompatible languages, so too is the ethical landscape replete with a multiplicity of moralities. 

From this analogy between morality and language we can actually get much mileage, for there is more than one respect in which the two resemble one another.

Morality, like a language, is essentially a tradition.  In fact, a “natural” language supplies us with a model of tradition at its best. 

After years and years of laboring indefatigably to undercut the institutions of the lands within which they were reared, radicals of all stripes are now reaping the fruits of their labor.  One of these fruits is the delusional assumption, uncritically embraced by far too many, that tradition—any tradition—is an antiquated, possibly even superstitious, way of attending to matters.  To observe a tradition is to act thoughtlessly.  Tradition is static.

In reality, though, as we learn from the example of a language, we rely on tradition because we have nothing else to rely upon. We are no freer to extricate ourselves from tradition than we are free to relieve ourselves from language.  So, the radical’s first error lies in his belief that there are alternatives to tradition; there are not.  Of course it is true that there are always other traditions to which we can turn, just as we can always avail ourselves of the study of other languages; but this is far different from abandoning tradition altogether.  And even then, the adoption of other traditions and languages is possible only because there is an original tradition or language by way of which we approach them.

Yet the radical’s first error is by no means his last.

Tradition is no more and no less static than a language.  This is to say that it isn’t static at all.  As one philosopher once put it, if tradition is “blind,” it is “blind as a bat.”  The same can be said for language.  Language, like tradition, is the present generation’s inheritance, a magisterial estate that its ancestors, over the course of centuries and millennia, worked continuously, even if mostly unconsciously, to erect.  For as expansive, as palatial, as this property is, however, it remains incomplete.  By using and reusing what has been handed down to us, we preserve it while re-imagining it.  Our legacy—the words and phrases of our language—is pregnant with possibilities for the present and future that each use of the language goes at least some distance in unlocking.

Tradition is just as stable, and just as open-textured, as language.  This is no less so than when the tradition in question is a moral tradition. 

To this line of thought many, including and especially those who regard themselves as conservative, will object that it is a species of “relativism.”  The critics are wide of the mark.

For starters, “relativism,” is supposed to refer to a family of views that holds that in a contest of moral judgments where the contestants are different cultures, all are victors—or at least none are losers. There is nothing in what I said that lends support to this position.

If “relativism” is true, then the moralities (if this is what we can still call them) of different cultures must be incomparable.  Yet on the view that I offer, there can be and has always been commerce between moral traditions—just as there is exchange between languages.  What this in turn means is that it is most certainly possible, as well as desirable, that we judge them against one another: some traditions, in other words, are superior or inferior to others.

Yet our evaluations transpire against the backdrop, not of some supra-historical standard of Reason, but the standards peculiar to each tradition.  For instance, let us say that we have a choice to make between Christianity and Islam.  We need to determine which of the two is more defensible as a tradition.  This is a judgment that can be made, but it obviously can’t be made from the standpoint of one or the other.  Each of these traditions—like every other morality—has some conception of human happiness.  To this end, they have developed standards—catalogues of virtues and vices and precepts of various sorts—by which their adherents are to abide.  It is by the standards of Islam that we judge Islam, and the standards of Christianity that we judge Christianity. 

If there are tensions within the set of standards in question that have not been satisfactorily resolved, or if those standards have failed to promote the tradition’s ideal of the good life, then on its own terms, that tradition must be deemed inferior to that tradition or those traditions that are free, or at least not as burdened, by such problems.  At the present moment, with revolution spreading throughout the Islamic world, it appears that Islam just might be undergoing a crisis of epic proportions.  If so, this could very well be as powerful an indication as any that it is a tradition in ill repair, a tradition that is suffering from some mounting incoherence to which its own standards have given rise. 

An ethical tradition is like a language in another crucial respect. 

From a living language we abstract rules and principles, what we call its “grammar.”  Ethical traditions can also be summarized in terms of principles.  But this is the point: “moral principles” constitute a summation of the tradition from which they have been distilled.  Contrary to what all of the talk of “natural rights” and “human rights” and all of the rest would have us believe, “moral principles” no more precede the tradition from which they have been abstracted than do grammatical principles exist in advance of the language to which they owe their being.

Linguistic principles constitute a language’s grammar.  Similarly, moral principles constitute a tradition’s ideology.  Both linguistic and moral principles are their respective traditions’ cliff notes.

There are many folks, from across the political spectrum, for who my account of morality will be unsettling. In a future article, I will explain why.    

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 







Morality versus Godliness

posted by Jack Kerwick

There is much talk these days about something called “Judaeo-Christian values.”  This is the name that is invariably assigned to the morality to which America is supposed to have traditionally subscribed.  America, we are told, is a “Judaeo-Christian” nation, a nation “founded” upon “Judaeo-Christian principles” or “ideals.” 

Now, it is, of course, true that there is an especially close relationship between Judaism and Christianity.  The latter spun out of the former.  The first Christians were Jews, and the Man who the Christian world—approximately one-third of the planet’s population—recognizes as God Almighty was a Jew.  To those writings that Jews regard as sacred Christians attach the same importance. In fact, though he doesn’t often think of himself in exactly these terms, if pushed, the Christian would be the first to acknowledge that he is indeed a Jew, but a perfected Jew, a Jew who lived to witness the coming of the Messiah—the Christ.

Yet for all of these similarities, the expression “Judeao-Christian morality” is, ultimately, a fiction that does an injustice to both Judaism and Christianity. 

The “values,” “principles,” or “ideals” encompassed by “Judaeo-Christian morality” are to the traditions from which they have been abstracted what a portrait is to the whole life of the person of whom it is a depiction.  The values, principles, and ideals of “Judeao-Christian morality” stand in relation to the faiths from which they’ve been distilled as the principles of a grammar stand in relation to the living language to which they belong.  Just as a portrait and a grammar derive their value from their usefulness in summarizing the vastly more intricate phenomena to which they owe their being, so too are “the principles” of any morality nothing more or less than bloodless, lifeless abstractions, static abridgements of the living tradition of which they are cliff notes.

Strictly speaking, neither Judaism nor Christianity is a “morality” at all.  Both are religions.  It is true that from these religions we can extract principles, values, and ideals. It is even true that we can, with some justice, gather them up and label them “morality.”  But what we cannot do is think of them solely in terms of morality, or think that this label is anything other than a term of convenience, a term with all of the short-hand value and literal truth as the expression, “the sun rises.”  The sun does not literally rise.  Nor can it literally be said that Judaism and Christianity are “systems” of morality.

The principles, ideals, and values of Judaism and Christianity are intelligible only because of the unmistakably theological context within which they take their place. In short, if we insist on speaking of Judaism and Christianity as “systems” at all, we should be clear that they are systems, not of morality, but of religion.  Their principles assume meaning only because they are carefully situated within a narrative of which no less a being than God Himself is at the center.  It is for the purpose of shaping themselves into the kind of person who will love self, neighbor, and God for God’s sake that their adherents are expected to observe “the principles,” affirm “the values,” and pursue “the ideals” of these two great religious traditions.

Once these principles, ideals, and values become disembodied, as it were, once they are boiled down into a doctrine of “natural rights,” say, or some fixed set of principles alleged to be “self-evident” or “innate” or demanded by “human nature” or “Reason,” they lose their identity and, with it, their power to inspire and motivate. 

Now, the concept of “Judaeo-Christian” morality is even more of a distortion than the concepts of “Jewish morality” and “Christian morality.”  Judaism and Christianity are both religious traditions, but there is a very real respect in which we can say that they affirm different deities. 

With a few exceptions here and there, Christians the world over essentially agree on the triune nature of God.  That is, in stark contrast to Jews, Christians believe that God is Three Divine Persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  To Jewish ears, this doctrine of the Blessed Trinity can only smack of the worst of sins, the sin of idolatry, for to non-Christians of all faiths it appears to be an affirmation of polytheism.  And Judaism is noted for nothing if not its fierce monotheism.

Christianity, of course, is not a version of polytheism. It is as monotheistic as Judaism.  But Christians have arrived at their peculiar conception of God because of another that they embrace, one in the absence of which Christianity would not be the religion that it is.  From this doctrine Jews and other theists recoil in sheer horror.  It is called the Incarnation.  Inasmuch as it embodies the conviction that, not this or that “god,” but the one and only God of all that is, from sheer love, chose to became a human being, it is truly unique.

Yet this isn’t all. 

It isn’t just that God became a man.  According to the story of the Incarnation, God became a man who, for the sake of the human race, both bore unimaginable suffering as well as the most humiliating of deaths.  To put it mildly, the God of Christianity strikes non-Christians as insufficiently transcendental.  To put it more bluntly, such a God comes across as scandalously immanent. 

But the God of Christianity is the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The God that Christians worship entered human history and, as the prologue to John’s Gospel states, “dwelt among us.”  Like that of any other human being, Jesus’ identity was the product of the historical and cultural circumstances in which He lived.  This He appears to have known better than anyone, for in order to thrust His significance upon His contemporaries, Jesus carefully—masterfully—weaved His image from the various threads of His own Jewish tradition.  Unlike, say, Muhammad, who gathered together a series of allegedly divinely inspired orders and commands devoid of any narrative framework, Jesus saw to it that His life, or at least His public ministry, was nothing less than a dramatic reenactment of the collective self-understanding of His (Jewish) people.  Yet it was also something more than this, for in reenacting the past, He also revised popular conceptions of it.  And in doing the latter, there is a real sense in which He recreated the present and re-envisioned possibilities for the future.

Jesus is what in another idiom we may describe as a “moral exemplar.” For Christians, it would be said that he is a moral exemplar par excellence.  Here is a man who immersed Himself in the tradition within which He was born and reared.  Jesus wasn’t content in achieving mere fluency in His tradition; He successfully sought connoisseurship in it.  Jesus made no ringing affirmations of such abstract notions as “human dignity,” “rational nature,” “personhood,” and “human nature,” much less “self-evident” “human rights.”  He knew that human flourishing could occur only within the concrete context of tradition—His tradition, the theological tradition of Judaism.  It was this tradition that Jesus sought to reshape and fulfill in His own Person, but ultimately in His passion, death, and resurrection from the dead.

For Christians, then, “morality” is not essentially, or even primarily, a matter of observing “principles,” pursuing abstract ideals (like Equality or Justice), or following rules and commands.  “Morality” consists in the emulation of a person, or a Person. Jesus is indeed the exemplar of stellar conduct for Christians. But the conduct in question is not, strictly speaking, moral conduct; it is godly conduct.  Christians (and Jews) aspire toward godliness.  The religious are concerned with religiosity, not “morality.”

“Morality,” especially when it is a morality of abstract universal “principles” and “ideals,” is “the desiccated relic,” as one philosopher once put it, the residual fragments, of a tradition. 

More specifically, it is, at least in the West, the traces of a religious tradition.   

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 







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posted 5:10:35pm Sep. 22, 2014 | read full post »

History, Not Ideology, is Our Guide for Iraq
While listening to Bill Bennett’s radio program the other morning, a caller, respectfully, yet passionately, expressed his incredulity over the fact that anyone continues to take the Bill Kristols and Max Boots (and, by implication, the Bill Bennetts) of the world seriously when it comes to issues

posted 8:13:07am Sep. 18, 2014 | read full post »

When "Race" Riots were White--And What We Can Learn From Them
In light of the “Fergusons” that have erupted in America over the last 50 years or so, it may come as quite a surprise to many of us to learn that from the 19th century clear through to roughly the middle of the 20th, most of those responsible for initiating “race” riots were white. In 18

posted 2:07:15pm Sep. 17, 2014 | read full post »

Interracial Violence Ignored by the Media
For weeks on end, the police shooting death of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri by a white officer had managed to remain front and center on the national stage. The usual suspects in the Racism-Industrial-Complex (RIC) held up this incident as proof that “black men in America are under attack,”

posted 10:01:01pm Sep. 12, 2014 | read full post »

Iraq, Ideology, and Truth: Dissecting the Political Blame Game
It would be comical if the fate of our country and the world didn’t hang in the balance to watch the Democrats and their neoconservative Republican rivals point blame at one another as ISIS assumes the national stage. Some thoughts on this internecine battle between these two birds of the same

posted 10:19:44pm Sep. 11, 2014 | read full post »

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