By Matthew L. Skinner Charity doesn’t leave us unchanged, which is just one reason why it’s hard to make ourselves do it. To be more specific: when we extend generosity and justice to others, it alters our relationship to them. Especially when those “others” are foreign to us. Hospitality has ways of making the people […]
I was 17 years old. This was Philosophy 101. There stood Dr. Rob Brady, diminutive in stature, expansive in mind, with a Socratic gleam in his eye and devilish grin on his face.
“Let’s imagine your wife is imprisoned in Nazi Germany. They will let her go free if she agrees to have sex with a Nazi guard and be impregnated. Do you advise your wife to have sex with the guard or not? And if so, do you hope that she enjoys herself?” I will never forget the horror I felt when I saw the number of people who would let the woman rot in a Nazi prison.
“Let’s imagine constructing a society using the philosophical strategy known as the ‘veil of ignorance.’ In this set-up, you have no information regarding who you are–your race, gender, class, sexual orientation, intellectual capacity, physical ability, etc.; you must try to establish a just society. Only after you have constructed the society is your own social location revealed.” I wasn’t religious; I was captivated by the ethical challenge.
I promptly became a Philosophy major.
In Matthew 22, we find Jesus catching it from the Left and Right. Just before our passage, the Sadducees (the landed aristocracy whose power was based upon the Temple and inheritance, legacy-based traditions) go after him; in 22:34-46, the Pharisees (those concerned about the people of the land, a more democratic movement) go up against him for the sole purpose of “testing” and entrapping him. But Jesus pandered to no one: not Sadducees, not Pharisees, not Zealots (the nationalistic movement that repudiated any cooperation with Rome who occupied their country), not even Rome itself. Over-indulged religious leaders and government officials alike found it impossible to get him to sell-out. Jesus remained single-minded throughout his life: Love God and neighbor, neighbor and God. Then let the chips fall where they may.
They ask Jesus: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” An ethical challenge.
How does Jesus respond? With a media-worthy sound-bite, partisan talking-point, the latest brilliant, think-tank political and economic theory? Nope. Jesus presumably underwhelms by merely quoting scriptures that any Jew of speaking age then or now could probably recite:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus’ first quote comes from Deuteronomy 6:5, part of the prayer known simply as the “Shema.” The second is found in Leviticus 19 which says, among other things:
- “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”
- “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great”
- “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor”
Here’s how you know if something is Christian or not: “Does it promote the flourishing of all creation?” If not, it may be expedient and satisfying, but it’s not Christian.
We’re now a month into #Occupy Wall Street. What’s it all about? Opinions vary. I’ve had lively conversations these past few days with friends who identify across the political and religious spectrum. I’ve been left with the unsettling, distinct feeling that Dr. Brady’s class, Jesus, and the #OWS process intersect in provocative ways that demand attention:
1. How much is enough?
We’ve all read the news so we know the routine. Liberals want a redistribution of wealth that takes money from the extremely rich and gives it to the poor with the government heavily involved. Conservatives argue that the wealthy already pay the majority of taxes and the government should stay out of things since it is bloated and inefficient and should just let the market fix things. Both sides have some valid arguments and concerns.
What doesn’t seem to be on the table is “how much is enough?” What does “enough” look like? Is there a point where “more than enough” cripples us, truly cripples us as human beings made in the image of God? Sure, Ebenezer Scrooge worked tirelessly to amass his wealth. But what point did his greed chain him at the expense of his neighbor?
2. What about the “veil of ignorance?”
We would all do well to don it. We tend to argue with only our own experiences, assumptions, and prospects in mind. It’s hard not to. But justice demands otherwise. As Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.” What system would we advocate if we argued using the “veil of ignorance?” That’s the view of “heaven on earth” that Matthew is talking about.
Do we or do we not, as individuals and as a community, have the capacity for generosity? Deep generosity. Not just “fairness.” Not bean-counting. Generosity. Again, Scrooge was “fair.” He agreed to pay a wage and he paid it. He was always timely with the wage and entirely predictable. He was Scrooge. Heads-up, friends.
4. Where’s the accountability?
There can be no convincing justice without rigorous systems of accountability. #OWS has made it obvious that Americans of every age, race, and political affiliation understand that our mechanisms of accountability have failed abysmally, all the way around. People are “cheating the system” in various ways and sometimes being generously rewarded for doing so. Jesus was all about gracious love, which includes straightforward accountability.
5. Until We Have Faces
Whatever the final outcome of #OWS, it’s encouraging to find ourselves in dialogue about the common good once again. We are crossing the lines of age, race, gender, and political party. Our neighbors are starting to have faces, and that’s crucial. We can’t love in the abstract, at least not well.
We are in the habit of caricature. If someone disagrees with us, we tend not to listen deeply, respectfully, and humbly; rather we immediately think, if not say, “Of course you think that, you are a _______ (fill in the blank: liberal, conservative, whatever). We assume the other person is not as smart, perceptive, informed, objective, ethical or faithful as we are. They are deluded because they get their news from such and such a source. We will do anything in our power to avoid listening and taking each other’s points seriously. As Jesus knew, we will crucify faster than we will listen or stand corrected in any way. Until we treat one another as friends, as those who have faces, we will stand polarized and unable, unwilling to compromise and devise solutions, preferring to blame and complain instead.
We have a rare opportunity at this time in this place to build something worthwhile and true, just and rich, that comes from our very best selves, our humble, generous, other-oriented, daringly hopeful selves. That is, our godly selves.
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