At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

A Problem with “Natural Rights”

posted by Jack Kerwick

Many distinguished, even brilliant thinkers, both past and present, have championed the doctrine of “natural rights” (more commonly referred to nowadays as “human rights).”   Without doubt, largely thanks to its enshrinement in America’s Declaration of Independence, it remains our public political philosophy.

According to the creed, all human beings, simply by virtue of their humanity, possess the very same “rights.”  While these “rights” have been variously described, traditionally they have been held to consist of claims to such basic goods as life, liberty, property, and maybe “the pursuit of happiness.” 

Since these “rights” are “natural” or “human,” they transcend all individuating circumstances.  “Rights” owe nothing to culture, say, or history—an idea at one time conveyed through the fictive concept of “the state of nature.”  The latter refers to life prior to the formation of political society. 


Although rights theorists disagreed with one another over what life was supposedly like in it, they all agreed that it was for the sake of relieving themselves of the unqualified character of human conduct in the state of nature that individuals leave it and join together to form a state.   

That is, according to the classical rights theorists, the state comes into being as a means of qualifying conduct.  Two of the most salient characteristics of a state are, first, an office in which all authority is thought to reside and, secondly, a mechanism of power attached to this authority. 

A common authority—one to which all members of the state are bound—is responsible for both establishing the terms in which the conduct of citizens is to be qualified as well as enforcing these terms. It is for the sake of fulfilling these functions that individuals give rise to government.


This is crucial, for even by the lights of the great rights theorists their own theories cannot be sustained.  There is no incompatibility between the idea of “natural rights” and the idea of life beyond the state of nature.  However, there is indeed radical incompatibility between the idea that the state exists for the sake of protecting “natural rights” and the nature of political life. 

To put it more simply, natural rights are unqualified in character.  Yet it is precisely for the purpose of qualifying this unqualified situation—the state of nature—that the state was brought into being.  Life under government is the antithesis of life in a state of nature, in other words, because in the former, citizens’ conduct is conditioned by laws. In the latter, without a common authority (or, what amounts to the same thing, a commonly recognized authority), there is no law.


The laws under which we live in political society are duties, first and foremost.  Rights can be read from them, for sure, but it is important to grasp that every individual’s right to such-and-such is simply the duty of each and every other person not to interfere with their exercise of it.  And even then, these “rights” are not “natural” or “human.”  Rather, they are culturally-specific acquisitions that derive their meaning from the complex of duties within which they are found.  (This explains why neither in the Constitution, the common law, nor legislative law is there to be discerned any references to the abstraction of “natural rights.”)  

There may very well be “natural rights.”  Yet talk of them, while rhetorically effective, is philosophically problematic and politically useless.


Jesus: No Radical II: Replies to Critics

posted by Jack Kerwick

Jesus was no “radical.” 

To this claim of mine, several thoughtful responses have been in the coming.  My friend and writer, the always perceptive Ilana Mercer, lead the charge (you can see some of this exchange here:  Jesus was indeed a “radical,” Mercer asserted.  He was also a man of “genius” and “courage” whose qualities place Him squarely within an extensive, rich prophetic tradition.   Most of Ilana’s fans who contributed to this discussion, by and large, shared her judgment.

Originally, the contention against which I argued is the prevailing consensus among contemporary Biblical scholars that Jesus—the “Historical” Jesus—was a “radical,” “rebel,” or “revolutionary.”  In the hands of these “political-theologians,” as Burke referred to the radicals and revolutionaries inFrance, these terms are loaded with specific connotations. 


The vast majority of those who claim to have excavated from the accretions of Christian theological embellishment a Jesus who sought to subvert “the structures of power” of his society have substituted for the Christ of traditional Christian faith a Jesus made in the image of their own leftist politics.  Against this move, I claimed that Jesus was not a radical social egalitarian who never made any claims to divinity.  And He did not aspire to usher in a utopian age in which the old system of power and property would be razed.

In short, it was always cosmic justice—not social justice—with which Jesus was first and foremost concerned. 

This, in turn, is but another way of saying that unless we read Him in the theological terms in which He described Himself, He will forever elude us.


Some people accused me of constructing a Jesus of my own, a Jesus who I could conscript into the service of “right-wing” or conservative politics.  They couldn’t be more mistaken: my whole point is not that Jesus wasn’t a first century political radical; my point is that He wasn’t political at all—at least not in our sense of that term.

It is, of course, correct that the distinction between politics and theology or religion to which we have grown accustomed was nonexistent in Jesus’ culture.  Yet this is all the more reason to resist the impulse to anachronistically characterize Him in the political terms that define our world.

A political radical is the sort of figure for whom conservatives in the tradition of Burke have utter contempt.  Inasmuch as he suffers from the character defects of impatience and intemperance, the radical is vicious.  These vices in turn lead him to advocate tirelessly on behalf of revolutionary change, change that consists, not of reform, but of destruction.  The radical desires nothing less than to “fundamentally transform” the institutional arrangements of his society. 


Jesus, in stark contrast, looked not to “abolish the [Mosaic] law, but to fulfill it.”  Having mastered the language of His Jewish tradition, He sought to draw the attention of both his contemporaries and opponents to the fact that it was pregnant with a plethora of possibilities of which they were forgetful.  This is particularly illuminating for present purposes: Jesus, unlike the radical, did not disdain the past.  Quite the contrary: He constantly drew on His people’s rich and richly diverse history in order to connect their past with their present and their future. 

In reality, even the most immoderate of radicals is as incapable of emancipating himself from the cultural traditions in which he has been reared as he is incapable of liberating himself from his first language.  But the radical likes to believe otherwise. 


The Black Nationalist is one telling illustration of this self-delusional conceit.  He judges America and the whole Western world to be incorrigibly “racist” to the core, fundamentally beyond the possibility of redemption—as long as the current “system” stands.  The so-called “gender feminist” is another example: the gender feminist thinks that Western civilization is so ridden with “patriarchy” and “sexism” that nothing less than a systemic and systematic dismantling of its institutions is called for if women are ever to gain “equality” with men.

I could continue ad infinitum adding to this list of examples of radical thought.  It would be a superfluous exercise, however, because the radical is a well known character to all of us.

What should be equally clear, by now, is that, as I said initially, Jesus was no radical.     





Jesus: No Radical

posted by Jack Kerwick

Recently, while discussing topics in the philosophy of religion during my introductory course in philosophy, a student claimed that Jesus was “a rebel.”  Although this judgment of hers is not without some truth, it is decidedly false in the sense in which I am sure she intended for it to be taken.

The idea that Jesus was a rebel or radical is certainly an improvement over the “meek and mild” Jesus of the popular imagination.  The latter is a neutered Jesus, a Jesus that functions as a blank screen upon which anyone and everyone can project his theological, moral, and political idiosyncrasies.  The former, in contrast, is a being with passion and conviction.  Also, this reading of Jesus at least has some grounding in the Biblical text.  


Still, in the sense in which it is commonly used, the sense in which my student used it, the image of Jesus as rebel is as much of a fiction as is that of Jesus meek and mild. 

Many contemporary New Testament scholars have labored hard to promote this depiction of Jesus as a radical or rebel.  While I lack their professional expertise, as a Christian, I can confidently reject their reading of the Scriptures.

The problem with the words “rebel” and “radical” lies in their connotations. More often than not, they are explicitly political.  And even when they aren’t explicitly political, they are implicitly as much, for they suggest a figure whose critical eye is forever set upon a culture.


Those scholars and laypersons who are fond of referring to Jesus as “a rebel” or “radical” know this.  This is why they do it. 

By casting Jesus as a “radical,” those students of the Bible whose sympathies lie with the politics of the left—i.e. most of those who characterize Jesus as a “radical”—hope to link Him with their own ideological causes and commitments.  For example, Jesus, they say, was a champion of “social justice.”  Those who do not consciously subscribe to leftist politics, on the other hand, have their own reasons for seeing Jesus as a “radical”: they want their Christianity—and, thus, their Christ—to have political relevance.

In any case, if we insist on viewing Jesus as a rebel, then we must be clear as to what He was and was not rebelling against. 


Jesus was not an “anti-imperialist” rebelling against imperial Rome.  Nor was He an “egalitarian” interested in “deconstructing” those “social structures” designed to perpetuate “asymmetries” of “power” between “the haves” and “the have nots.”  Jesus was not in the least concerned with dismantling “patriarchy” or “classism.” 

If Jesus was a rebel, it was against sin or evil that he railed. 

To put this point another way, any portrait of Jesus that isn’t theological is not a portrait of Jesus. 

Only in light of Jesus’ cosmic vocation do both the Gospels as well as the rise of Christianity become intelligible. 

Jesus did indeed want to change the world—but one heart at a time.  For utopian political schemes of the sort that were all too common during His day—and ours—Jesus had no use.  Not only did He repudiate those who envisioned the Messiah as a figure who would wrest all power away from Rome and restore Israel to some idyllic condition.  Jesus said remarkably little about Rome at all, and what He did say wasn’t remotely subversive, or even angry. 


Recall that when Jesus healed the centurion’s servant, He did not first demand of Him that the soldier relinquish his duties.  He praised the centurion for his faith.  He criticized neither the centurion nor the Roman Empire of which he was an agent.   

In fact, unlike—radically unlike—those contemporary leftist activists who style themselves inheritors of a prophetic tradition of advocating on behalf of the oppressed and subjugated, Jesus was not infrequently as harsh with His most devoted disciples as He was His enemies within the Jewish ruling class.  But I suppose that this is the point: Jesus had disciples; today’s activists have constituents.

Jesus never would have permitted—never did permit—His disciples to invoke their poverty or their condition of living under Roman occupation (or the occupation of any foreign power) as justification for impiety—much less the sorts of egregious conduct that many of today’s “poor” engage in and for which they are excused by their self-appointed champions.


No, Jesus was no radical or rebel.  He was not a visionary or champion of “social justice.”  He wasn’t interested in dissolving all class distinctions and ushering in a property-less Eden on Earth.

Jesus was the Son of God.  He was interested first and foremost in prevailing over sin and evil, through violence, yes, but the violence that He would permit to be inflicted upon Himself. 

Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as Peter said.  He became one of us so that He could redeem humanity and transform us into the adopted sons and daughters of God the Father.

No other understanding of Jesus is adequate.




Reflections of a 40 Year-Old

posted by Jack Kerwick

On June 10, I will be 40 years old.

Much has changed since 1972, both in my own life as well as in the world.

Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon presided over America.

We were still engaged in the Vietnam War. 

The median price of a home was $27, 600.  The average car cost $3,853 and the average income was $11,859. 

In the world of popular entertainment, The Godfather won the Oscar Award for Best Picture and All in the Family was the top rated television show.  The latter, though, had some competition: Sanford and Son, Mash, and The Waltons were just some of the iconic programs that premiered in 1972.  In fact, up until this juncture TV Guide would insert a “C” after those listings that aired in color.  This was the first year that it dropped the “C” and instead began identifying those shows that were still in black and white (yes, there were still programs that were filmed in black and white!).  


There may have been more color television programs than black and white by the time I was born, but it wouldn’t be for another few years that I would know this.  We had a single television, a floor contraption with four wooden legs—and it was a black-and-white model.  We moved out of the apartment in which I was born when I was three years-old.  It wasn’t too much longer after this, I believe, when my parents purchased a color set.

Our TV, like the sets in the homes of everyone who we would visit, had “rabbit ears”; no one had cable.  For that matter, no one that I can recall even had a remote control.  There were two dials on the set that you had no option but to manipulate by hand—the one was for “VHF,” the other for “UHF.” 


The former consisted of the three networks—ABC, CBC, and NBC—as well as some other stations.Trenton,New Jersey, where I was born and raised, is in between the metropolises of Philadelphia, to the south, and New York City, to the north.  This meant that in addition to channels 6 (ABC Philadelphia) and 7 (ABC New York City), 2 (CBS New York City) and 10 (CBS Philadelphia), and 3 and 4 (NBC, Philadelphia and New York City, respectively), we had available to us channels 5 (WNEW New York, now Fox); 9 (WOR New York, now MyNetwork TV); 11 (WPIX, now the CW) and 12 and 13 (both PBS).    

On UHF, there were channels 17, 29, 48, and 52 (Philadelphia stations all of them).

When I was about seven or so, my father borrowed from a co-worker Pong, the first home video system.  It offered two games, if I am not mistaken: “Squash” and “Tennis.”  What a surreal experience I remember it being to watch on our television screen these bars and blips whose movement my family and I were able to control.  By today’s standards, the graphics were abysmally poor.  I haven’t a doubt that this, coupled with the sluggish rate at which the games unfolded, would bore to tears my three year-old son, to say nothing of an adolescent “gamer” of today. 


When I was a child, I was an avid consumer of superhero comics. I bought these magazines whenever I could. I have comics with 30 cent covers.  I don’t remember buying them when they were that price (my father must’ve bought them for me).  I do, however, recollect, and clearly, purchasing them when they were 50 cents each. 

Today, the standard comic book is between three and four dollars.

Also, it was possible when I was a child to find my genre of choice at your average convenience store. This has long since been the case.  The majority of people in 2012 who buy comics don’t just buy them; they collect them.  And the majority of these are not children. They are adults.  Thus, comics—or “graphic novels,” as they are now called—are sold by and large at either comic book stores or at chain bookstores (like Barnes and Nobles).


Superhero comics and Pong weren’t the only forms of entertainment.  We would also “play records.” We had an old record player that my sister and I would not infrequently dust off and use.  Around Christmas it would come in handy when we wanted to hear the old classic carols, yes, but it was really a blast when my two cousins would spend the night and they would bring along their Star Wars album!   One morning in particular I can vividly recall my mother serving us pancakes as we sat around the table listening to it. This was a treat, for although Star Wars was first released in 1977, I didn’t first see it until it was rereleased the following year.  My cousins had seen it by the time we listened to this album, but I had not.


This is another regard in which things have changed. During the days when no one I knew had cable or VCR’s, and phenomena like the home computer with its option to “download,” DVD players, and the like weren’t even heard of, it was not uncommon for movies, at least the successful films, to be re-released—usually on multiple occasions. 

My child, like virtually every child in the year 2012, has it made.  With our DVR, we can record all of his shows and he can watch them as often as he likes—commercial free.  He also has a ton of DVD’s.  Still, there is a ritual from yesteryear of which today’s kids are deprived, a ritual for which those of us who grew up practicing it each week would have gladly sacrificed our lives: Saturday morning cartoons.


The three main networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—began showing cartoons at 8:00 A.M.  If you wanted to see them—and you most definitely did—then you had no alternative but to make sure that you were up bright and early with the set on by 8:00.  After all, as I said, there were no recorders. My parents would sleep, so my sister and I would pour ourselves several bowls of cereal and get comfortable in front of the TV.  Between 8:00 and 12 noon we would alternate between networks, every so often arguing over whose turn it was to change the channel.

Just last night I took my son over to our neighborhood park.  It bears few similarities to the neighborhood park of my youth.  The playground on which my son runs around is covered with mulch and grass, and its sliding boards are made of plastic. In contrast, the playground in which I spent countless hours as a child consisted of cast iron “monkey bars” and a three-story high metal sliding board.  The ground itself was all asphalt. During the summer months, children—myself included—would situate themselves in milk crates and slide down the sliding board and onto the asphalt.  What a rush!


I used to ride my bike all over our neighborhood—and not infrequently beyond it. Yet unlike the children of today who look as if they load up with every piece of protective gear except a bullet proof vest before they hop on their bicycles, helmets or knee pads designed for this purpose were nonexistent.  Nor did anyone think to suggest them when kids suspended their riding in favor of “jumping” some makeshift ramp or other.

Contemporary agents of child protective services would be apoplectic if they knew that neither my parents nor any other adults, that I can remember, would require us kids to wear seatbelts.  My maternal grandfather always had a Cadillac, Buick, or Lincoln—i.e. a monstrous-sized vehicle (and these were the largest of cars in the era of large cars). These automobiles contained bench seats with armrests in the center.  On our trips fromTrenton to New York to visit his mother and siblings, my sister and I would fight over who would sit on the armrest in the front seat between my grandparents.


On top of all of this, my grandfather smoked cigars in the car

I never thought a thing of this, for my father would regularly smoke cigarettes around us in both the car as well as in our home.  In fact, I doubt that few people would have thought much of this, for smoking was commonplace.  The malls had ashtrays, and people routinely smoked as they did their grocery shopping. 

My wife is a kindergarten teacher at a public elementary school.  To hear her (as well as legions of others) tell it, the state of public school education has changed profoundly in the nearly 30 years since I attended. At her school, teachers are not permitted to so much as mark a student’s work in red ink; the ink must be lavender.  As for disciplining unruly pupils, forget it.  Teachers can’t put their hands on students, whether to pull them out of line, place them in the corner, etc. 


When I was a student, all papers were indeed marked in red ink, and the teacher would routinely call out our scores.  Disobedient students would be forced to stand in the corner, and sometimes they would be made to spend time in a dark coatroom.  Some teachers wouldn’t hesitate to grab the disorderly by their arms and yank them into shape.

Another significant difference between my wife’s public school and the one that I attended is that the latter would annually hold Christmas—not, as is the case with the former, Winter—concerts.  Not only would we call this much anticipated event a “Christmas” concert; we would as well sing explicitly religious songs, like “Angels We Have Heard On High.”  No Jewish “carols,” much less “Kwanza” hymns, were on the roster.


So many changes have I witnessed over my forty years on this Earth.  Forty years from now it will be 2052.  If I am still alive, I will be an old man of 80.  Lord only knows what changes will befall my life, and the country, over this span. But if they are anything at all in magnitude like those that have transpired between 1972 and the present, they promise to be dramatic—and, from our point in time, probably even inconceivable.     

originally published at The New American 








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