Friday, December 08, 2006

Not Good Enough

I’m going to pick on religious liberals here (big surprise), but readers are welcome to point out the same failing coming from the Right. I’ll likely tell you that you’re wrong, but have a go anyway. At least the other readers will get to consider your point.

I have previously recorded my frustration with the economic proposals of the religious left. The rhetoric is usually of the false comparison variety: how can we let The Rich benefit at all from a tax cut when there are children without health care? No discussion of relative tax burden allowed. What solutions will actually provide better medical care to more people are not to be entertained. The long-term result for children and adults is secondary. No, it’s just “Four legs good, two legs bad; Jesus says it’s evil.” The middle class is instructed to vote money away from rich people to give to poor people. That’s the Jesus way! (Those who believe I unfairly oversimplify their position might check out the direct quotes here, here, here, here, and here.) *

It is simplistic, feel-good theology. Christians do not have that option. What we advocate and work for has to take all foreseeable consequences into account.

For use of military force, a similar Manichean division is brought out. Thou shalt not kill. Jesus said to turn the other cheek. Context, translation, other verses, and the history of Christian theology are out of court. War is Not the Answer. (It certainly was the answer to slavery and the Holocaust.) Even those who make some nod to Just War theory start immediately by assuming that the UN is the proper constituted authority. Kofi 3:16. Ridiculous. We have responsibilities of forgiveness, but the strong also have responsibilities of justice for the weak. We are to avoid sin with all sincerity, but we are not forbidden to take no risks on behalf of the oppressed because there is a chance of harm.

It is simplistic, feel-good theology. Christians do not have that option. What we advocate and work for has to take all foreseeable consequences into account.

There has been a recent flurry of commentary from the religious left about the environment. (There has also been some deeper, nuanced if you will, writing, which I predict will go largely unnoticed.) In this instance, the bare assertion that we have stewardship over all things – certainly true – is being used to put theological language around very standard, and somewhat pagan, environmentalist thought. CS Lewis once noted that it is the job of Christians to put biblical ideas into modern language, not the other way around. Yes, we are stewards. But once it sinks in that we are stewards of both the houses and the termites, the conflict and balance become more complex. Too often we are enjoined to take a certain sympathetic attitude toward Nature, rather than, you know, actually fix anything. Bad water, refusal to use GM foods, and refusal to use certain pesticides remain the main killers.

For Christians, vague “peace on earth, good will toward chipmunks” isn’t enough. We are not allowed the cheap righteousness of warm feelings and liking beauty. It is simplistic, feel-good theology. Christians do not have that option. What we advocate and work for has to take all foreseeable consequences into account.

In an additional irony, their overarching moral principle for the economy is “Just do some good. Whether you are also doing harm is unimportant.” Militarily, the principle is the opposite “Make sure you do no harm. Whether you are doing good is unimportant.” I have more hope for the environmental debate, as both principles seem to be accepted into the discussion.

*Jim Wallis gave the Democratic response to President Bush’s weekly address recently. But its the Religious Right that is encroaching on matters of Church and State. Yup.


Anonymous said...

Crazy talk. Next you'll be telling me that being "nice" isn't one of the fruits of the spirt.

terri said...

AVI...who exactly qualifies as the "religious left?" I am conservative on some issues and maybe a little left-leaning towards others. I would definitely be identified by the label "evangelical" as far as my choice of church.

That being said, it does bug me that the Republican party doesn't focus much on the environment. Here, in Florida, development is happening at breakneck speeds and each year there are increased watering restrictions and higher water fees. The demand for water is greatly outpacing supply as a result of the huge influx of people and development.

Economically, development is "good." However, in the case of scant resources, it eventually results in higher water fees and millions of lost dollars spent on desalination plants, developed in an effort to provide more water, that didn't actually work.

In the long run, the wise use of resources pays for itself.

Are you saying we shouldn't focus on that at all?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think there is a perception that because Republicans/conservatives don't talk about the environment as much, they must have a worse environmental record. I don't think there's much difference. To carry forward my recent "tribal" theme, talking about the environment and being Very Concerned about it is a trust cue in the A & H tribe. You don't have to actually fix anything, just deplore the right things, so that you can identify yourself as a sensitive person who hates sprawl and likes trees.

There is a responsibility that goes with living in a place, and conservative Christians are subject to that responsibility as well. Sending your pollution (of any sort) on to the next guy, whether that be geographic or chronological, is irresponsible. Some recompense or balance must be applied. My objection is to with environmental stewardship, but to cheaply getting credit for stewardship because you have the right attitudes and care So Much.

akafred said...

For Repulicans with a concern for the environment try: Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP) Feature article/blog: "Why conservation is conservative."

copithorne said...

You expressed an intention to pick on religious liberals, but then didn't follow through with an argument that I could discern.

It's the season to share some of Jesus' teaching. Most people, even most Christians find the teachings of Jesus Christ to be impractical:

In the beatitudes, Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God."

And in Matthew 25 Jesus says:

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' 37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' 40 "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' 41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' 44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' 45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' 46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

In this post, you seem to be suggesting that you prefer to make peace be starting war. Or you think the best way to help the poor is to give more money to people who are not poor.

I think you may actually believe these things, but you are hypnotizing yourself with abstraction.

We actually make peace by making peace. And we help the poor by helping the poor.

Dubbahdee said...

Simplicity is a virtue in the conduct of one’s life. It is more often, however, a problem in one’s thinking. You allowed as how it is possible that liberals do not have the lock on simplistic analytical perspectives, and I think you are right. Simplistic thinking simply results from wanting something to be true, but lacking the desire or discipline to perform due diligence. There are many reasons for that. All three examples of overly-simple thinking that you cite ring true to me. The example of force, or “violence” is the one that struck me hardest.
I have often heard people say that violence never solves anything. That is foolish talk. Clearly, violence does solve some things. You gave two very plain examples citing the destruction of the American slave system by means of the American Civil War, and the overthrow of Nazism through WW2. If the U.S. had failed to rise up to war, what greater evils would still have been perpetrated? We, of course, cannot know for certain. Yet we can reasonably presume they would have been terrible indeed.
You alluded at the end of your post to the proper use of force – to be used by the strong to protect the weak from oppression, injustice and destruction by evil people and institutions. To use your easy examples, to have pleaded with Hitler to pretty please leave those poor Jews alone…that is NOT turning the other cheek. That is encouraging murder by allowing it. To stand by and watch a criminal rape and murder your neighbor and NOT take action to stop it is tantamount to complicity. One cannot really think that this is what Jesus meant.
At the same time, it is overly simple to think that to shoot the criminal with a 9mm is the only option. A true proponent of non-violence (vs. the non-violence dilettante) would place his body in harms way to stop the attacker, perhaps perishing in the attempt. This might not actually stop the attack, and would result in two murders not one. It would be righteous, in that it would at least attempt to stop the crime, but it would not really “solve” the immediate problem. The judicious and restrained use of a bullet would also likely result in one death, but that death would be of the most guilty of the three participants. Not ideal, but more acceptable on the justice continuum than the other options.
Admittedly, it is also true that violence is an imperfect solution, as it causes many additional problems beyond the ones that it solves. The use of force for the resolution of conflict is akin to the use of chemotherapy to treat cancer. It is in many ways a horribly crude and inelegant therapeutic protocol with disastrous side effects. Nevertheless it is the best and most effective treatment we have. The side effects do not stop us from undertaking chemotherapy. Yet the wise person carefully weighs the cost and benefits of such a course. Having counted the cost, we often choose chemo. In doing so, we bring great suffering upon ourselves, and we live.
You are correct that the danger of the “liberal” way of thought is reductionist and lacking in nuance. It is an all or nothing mode of analysis. Unfortunately, we have seen the converse side of that in the way our current administration has been conducting this war. It is every bit as reductionist, but it assumes that war is simple and direct, and fails to take into account the side effects it produces, both on the enemy as well as ourselves. It may not have been wrong to wage this war, but the war may have been waged wrongly. Yet the same has been said of virtually every war in which have engaged. It seems almost as if that is the nature of war itself. It may be that we are still seeking our Ulysses Grant, who knows how to use an army.
I suspect, however, that the solutions we seek are not the ones that take into account all foreseeable consequences. Rather, it is more a matter of clarifying the one consequence that makes suffering all other consequences worthwhile. To use your own categories, the “liberal” finds it regrettable and tragic that the tyrant slaughters his people, but finds unacceptable the slaughter of the tyrant. The “conservative” recognizes that is regrettable and tragic that our own must die, but it is absolutely cannot allow the tyrant to live. What does this say about the values of those tribes? Which tribe truly values life, all of life, more highly?
Yagyu Munenori, one of the greatest swordsmen of Japan, spoke of the sword that takes life, and the sword that gives life. This is a many-layered and deeply nuanced concept that can require entire books to unpack. I refer you to this interesting article to consider further the complex nature of the use of violence to “solve problems.”

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you for providing an excellent example of exactly what I am talking about, copithorne. Refusing to see any possible meaning of peace except "no war;" suggesting that "helping the poor" has a simple and obvious meaning.

An example - far awy to give distance. People in Africa are starving. We send food. The governments steal it and give it to their soldiers. All the local farmers have no market for their crops and go out of business. So what do we do next year? The same thing? No, we try to find some way to get food to people without creating a lot of harm. Your suggestion is that I am advocating doing nothing to help them. Convenient for argument, but not very helpful in deciding what we do next. Those who conclude that because they do note hear the rhetoric they wish that their opponents are suggesting we do nothing are actually more of a problem than those who actually do nothing.

akafred: thanks. I was going to ask you for a link tomorrow.

copithorne said...

I do believe that peace and war are antonyms.

I also believe that "helping the poor" means helping the poor.

These concepts really are simple.

I did not suggest that you advocate doing nothing. It didn't cross my mind. I wonder where you got that from. Maybe you got it from Jesus.

I think you do use rhetoric to persuade yourself that you are starting wars in order to promote peace and you are helping wealthy people in order that poor people might profit.

And this rhetoric is not logically incoherent. Every war starts with a dream that it will end conflict. Creating wealth can be understood to help poor people too. But all the same, you are mystifying yourself with words.

Far better to be a peace maker by making peace. Far better to help the poor by helping the poor.

Otherwise, you are just lawyering up on Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Well, how about this for a discussion of relative tax burden?

Taxes on the rich should be MUCH HIGHER relative to their income because they have much higher incomes and generally benefit from an array of government services which the poor rarely need or avail themselves of--the Securities and Exchange Commission, for one quick example; domestic peace and freedom from roving bands of hungry poor, for another. And without the Army (staffed by the poor and disproportionately paid for by them) to protect our oil investors in the Middle East, where would significant numbers of our deprived rich classes be? --in greater congruence with Christian ethics, probably.

And for an example of it, let's look to the most productive, wealth-generating period in American history, the post-war generation when taxes were high on the rich and on corporations. Seemed to work just fine then.

And what on God's Earth are you referring to when you talk about better medical solutions for more people? You can't have the American medical care model in mind.

Finally, where is the Christian response to the Middle East and war? It isn't pre-emptive war against a paper tiger we had defeated and controlled for the past dozen years, and who happened to sit on the world's second largest oil reserve. Our concern for democracy and human rights in that context was demonstrable falsehood. It isn't in manipulating the data and creating deceptive pretexts for Christo-fascist war.

Jesus, as the bumpersticker says, was a liberal, who challenged the orthodoxy of the time. So too are Christians today, even though the Orthodoxy calls itself Christian. You don't need to maintain the social pretense of Christianity if what you really hate are the dysfunctional patterns of the poor. It's just really liberating to acknowlege unfulfilled frustrations which would otherwise be seen as moral avatism. Go ahead, call a lazy nigger a lazy nigger. You'll feel remarkably relieved, and in the long run it will hasten your realization of the fundamental precepts of Christianity.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Copithorne, if I get it right, you are saying that I, or people like me at least, am just using arguments as an excuse to do what I want rather than follow the simple commands of Jesus. That therefore, it doesn't really matter what logic I use, because it's all just a smoke screen anyway.

Well, I'm sure that's true of someone, somewhere. To generalize that it applies to large numbers of people, I would think you should supply evidence that people are kidding themselves, rather than just assuming it about them. You keep saying it sounds so simple, but then can't accurately give back what I've said. I suppose if you disbelieve all reasoning because you think it's an excuse, there's no point in reasoning with you. You've already made up your mind that it's all just an excuse anyway.

I would direct you to Arthur C Brooks, book Who Really Cares, reviewed earlier here:
The data is that conservatives give more to charity than liberals. Not only that, but those who assent to the premise that it is the government's responsibility to equalize give less than those who disagree with it. That would seem to contradict your assumption of people's motives. It is just possible that the people who are the most generous understand something about generosity. And it is just possible that those of us who work with the poor might have some valuable understanding of how they might best be helped.

I am not sure that Mango's comment should be dignified with an answer, as s/he piles on insult rather than argument. But there are some points worth answering; additionally, it is perhaps worth it to not just let myth run around unchallenged, as it some of these ideas seem to have gained force over the past few years.

The rich should pay a higher percentage. Fair enough. They do. Do you know what percentage of the income tax the top 1% in income pay? Do you know what the bottom 50% in income pay? I am not sure what basis you would have for making that stark difference even more dramatic.

The poor disproportionately fight our wars. No, actually they don't. Get the data.

The idea that the current administration has engineered the entire war for the oil is attractive to some, as it accords with their original assumptions of what their opponents' real motivations are. But the idea falls apart pretty quickly. We could have just taken it much more cheaply. We could have saved ourselves a bundle by just giving all these rich corporations a bunch of money on the sly. Why capitalist pigs would pay billions to make millions would seem counterintuitive at best. George Bush may be wrong about any number of things, and the war may be ill-advised on many grounds, but the idea that it was all a set-up to make money for oil buddies doesn't pass the laugh test.

When you start with the assumption of Bush's base motives, you get led step by step to the raging paranoia you note in your comment. Every new thing he does, because you know it can't be for his declared motives, must be about some hidden, darker, motive. To maintain the demonization, the explanation of motive must get deeper and more nefarious at each turn. Eventually one has to come to paranoid ideas, as above, because you paint yourself into a corner.

It is good to review some well-known and obvious facts before proceeding on to the arcane. Leading up to the Iraqi war, there was considerable agreement up until the actual "let's go to war" part. A majority of Democrats, and the Security Council and General Assembly at the UN agreed that Saddam was in violation, that he should stop, that he was being dishonest with the inspectors, that the other countries of the world should consequate him, that embargo and military builup were acceptable, and that threat of serious consequences, including military action were appropriate responses. Those were not neocon-only ideas. There was considerable consensus (though not unanimity) on all those points. Only when the US pushed to act on what the nations of the world had threatened did we fail to achieve a majority.

One can well argue that stopping short of war might have been a better choice. But one cannot argue that everyone wasn't there with us right up until the last minute, saying the same things we were. If the containment of Saddam was so obvious, as many now claim, how is it that all these other nations did not think so at the time?

As to the idea that what I really want to do is call people niggers and berate the poor, I refer you to my comments to copithorne, above. I am not sure how you come to this knowledge of me.

copithorne said...

AVI, you keep hearing me making judgments about your level of generosity. Hearing those judgments appears to make it hard for you to have a conversation with me. But I have neither made nor expressed any such judgments. I have no knowledge or opinion about your level of generosity.

I would have to presume that those judgments come from within yourself and it helps you to project those judgments on me as a representative of "the left."

This post started with your judgments about liberal Christians. I anticipate if you were able to look you would find that these judgments are an expression of your defensiveness towards these judgments that you project onto liberals and liberal Christians.

I was responding to your judgments of liberal Christians by noting that it is reasonable for Christians to understand Jesus to have commanded his followers to make peace and help the poor.

And by making peace and helping the poor I mean making peace and helping the poor. I don't mean making war and helping the wealthy.


For except you become as a little child you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

quotes from copithorne on this thread.

"In this post, you seem to be suggesting that you prefer to make peace be starting war. Or you think the best way to help the poor is to give more money to people who are not poor.

I think you may actually believe these things, but you are hypnotizing yourself with abstraction."

"I think you do use rhetoric to persuade yourself that you are starting wars in order to promote peace and you are helping wealthy people in order that poor people might profit."

"Otherwise, you are just lawyering up on Jesus."

Gee, sounds judgemental to me. It seems, er, simple that it's a judgement.

copithorne said...

I am disagreeing with what you write. [In my experience, I am just responding to what you write. But it also fair to say I am disagreeing with you.]

It seems like you experience disagreements as a personal judgment.

It is eye-opening for me to have you share that perspective.

I can only witness that a disagreemnt is not the same as a judgment and I see a tremendous opportunity for you to observe how you come to make that ellision.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I'm content to let my argument stand as stated.

I'm fairly good with words, but I don't know what an "ellision" is. "Elision," from "elide," I know, but I can't make it fit in context.

Neither can the editors of the SOED, apparently.