Sunday, March 28, 2021

Tim Keller and the Biblical Critique of Secular Justice Theories - Last Part

It's a good time to reread the previously-linked essay by Keller. I say again that he is largely right and I have little to add to much of what he says. I do think my few corrections or different looks are important, though.

I mentioned in my first post that the secular theories he discusses and calls a spectrum are actually not a continuum of any sort.  They are separate slots.  James even thought that "junk drawer" might be accurate. I think that is fair, especially as we all know from personal experience that while junk drawers eventually include a lot of crap we should have thrown out years ago, they also retain importance.  In your last year of life, there are drawers in your house you did not use.  But you went to the junk drawer three times that last week.

Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory includes 6 axes on which moral decisions hinge. 







He would say that these are what actually operate in our morality, regardless of what our theories say. So in Keller's discussion of Libertarian Justice, it is quickly obvious that liberty/oppression is the primary driver. (There are real but weaker influences from the other axes, as there will be in the subsequent theories, but I leave them aside for simplicity.) Liberal (classical liberal) Justice is about fairness/cheating. Utilitarian Justice is about care/harm. Postmodern Justice is only weakly about morality, being concerned with power, but there are elements of all the moral axes in it, though authority/subversion and loyalty/betrayal (Oh yes.  Oh very yes.  Look closer) are stronger. Keller isn't wrong, here, but I think Moral Foundations makes these things jump out more sharply.  I fantacise that if I pointed him to Haidt, Keller would drink it right in in a few minutes and rewrite this all better in a week.

Race Is Only One Category, And Not the Biggest

Because Keller wrote an earlier essay in the series about race and justice, and because the MLK statue in DC is one of the photo illustrations, the signalling is clear that when Keller is talking about justice, he may be talking about many things, especially the poor and the powerless (I think he mercifully avoided the weasel-word marginalised), but race is present in every sentence he writes. It is the Topic of the Age, so that is hardly surprising. But i think it diverts him from seeing his own lesson accurately. He forcefully points out that systems of power work hard to perpetuate themselves, and that Christians should be alert to this. I have no quibble with his assertion that Christians should try to be a voice for those who have no voice, however much others have used that and similar formulations deceitfully, to advance political rather than spiritual agendas.  Keller gets it right in theory, and mostly in practice.

Yet the Biblical word "generations" leads us astray. Sometimes power and influence are transmitted generation over generation, as they were in in Bible times, and have been unto our present day. Yet that has diminished every year. Since the beginning of the age of exploration, into the ages of industrialisation and information, on to whatever we call what we are entering now, generations have weakened and other factors risen.  When Keller talks about power structures and brings in the idea of generations, he can' help but have all further thinking on the subject be about race. If we want to look at power structures perpetuating themselves and think long term.  Race is inescapable.  And accurate.

But I don't think race has much to do with what describes institutional power anymore.  That urban black populations continue to have bad lives is no longer simply a matter of oppression. 

There has been a fun game among the race-baiters recently of claiming that all their statements about white fragility and white oppression must be true, the evidence being that it upsets white people so much. Not a strictly logical statement, but vivid. I would like to flip that and give a return volley: the reason that the history of racial oppression has become of enormous importance in the last few years is that the present isn't as rich a resource of examples. I knew sixty years ago that white people had held black people as slaves and treated them horribly, and that there was still prejudice in the south (ten years later I figured out it was in the north as well, just different). So all of a sudden this is news? No one ever heard this before? No, all it means is that something else is happening, so they are bringing this up as a fake bush to hide behind as they move across the landscape.

When we used to visit my in-laws there was a card game where you had to get to 500 points, or not get to 500 points or whatever, played over many hands, with totals kept. Many competitive people present. My mother-in-law was well in the lead. Stuart, her husband, had two good hands in a row, vaulting him into second place, still well behind her. Her eyes narrowed. "Everyone get Stuart." And everyone did. This is race atop the Powerlessness rankings. Race has been the clear champion for generations (biblical term), retiring trophy after trophy.  But is it still true. The new and immense power of social media like Twitter and Facebook are much in the news.  Do we see those as organised along the lines of keeping black people down? The Upper-class media of networks, NYT and WaPo, they are clearly very powerful and influential.  Is race much a part of that?  To counter that in both cases those are largely white people running them is to miss what is actually happening. That's a cover, a diversion. Look closer. And notice which black people - because it's not all of them, but there are lots and lots - are being elevated in those systems.  It's not the ones who are most white, but most SWPL. Government is ever-more powerful, and ever-more diverse. The powerful do perpetuate themselves, Keller is right, and all those CRT people are right in that sense that this self-perpetuation is still going on.

It's just that this ceased being about race decades ago, and in the last decade that has accelerated. Disadvantage by race has persisted, but it is diminished, and in most sectors is only residual now. There is a parallel from Dilbert, when one of the female characters is railing at Wally and Dilbert that the powerful people in the company are ALL MEN and Wally meekly says "those are other men." To focus on whiteness is to entirely miss who is ruling you and screwing you over for their own good now.

And Christians, of all people, should not be falling for that. We need to be a voice for the actual voiceless, who show up in tens of thousands for DC protests but don't even get reported on, who vote by the millions but get sneered at by the people who represent them. There was a joke from the 1980s that a woman from my church told in the early 2000s, making what she thought was a series of lighthearted but ultimately bigoted comments in a political discussion, about Tip O'Neill being told that one of his previous supporters had made a little more money and was now a Republican.  He asked what the dollar amount was and sighed "Is that all it takes, now?" There was a day when there was truth in that, when Republicans went to country clubs and Democrats were working stiffs. Even then it wasn't as deep as the accusations made it, but there was something to it.  By O'Neill's day that was already more untrue than it was true, and by the time my friend repeated it around 2002 the reverse was clearly true. And now the very rich are overwhelmingly liberal, yet remnants of the myth persist. People still believe old ideas to be true, because you can still find examples of rich Republicans or old-money white people preserving power with government influence, serving as confirmation bias.

I suggested who the powerful are but perhaps should not have.  Run it over in your mind yourselves who had power in America ten years ago, not one hundred years ago, who are trying to pull up the ladders and prevent competition now. Who has the money, the influence, the leverage, the ear of government entertainment and publishing and academia? If you have other power categories you think of that I didn't mention, so much the better.  I ask only that you consider where the power really lies, not where you were told it lies when you were in school.

Next, who is trying to keep you from seeing that? 

Now, take Tim Keller's very good biblical advice and go be a voice for the powerless.


james said...

"The talk was that strange, slight talk which governs the British Empire, which governs it in secret, and yet would scarcely enlighten an ordinary Englishman even if he could overhear it. Cabinet ministers on both sides were alluded to by their Christian names with a sort of bored benignity. The Radical Chancellor of the Exchequer, whom the whole Tory party was supposed to be cursing for his extortions, was praised for his minor poetry, or his saddle in the hunting field. The Tory leader, whom all Liberals were supposed to hate as a tyrant, was discussed and, on the whole, praised—as a Liberal. It seemed somehow that politicians were very important. And yet, anything seemed important about them except their politics."

"Sir Wilson Seymour was the kind of man whose importance is known to everybody who knows. The more you mixed with the innermost ring in every polity or profession, the more often you met Sir Wilson Seymour. .... But you could not meet him for five minutes without realizing that you had really been ruled by him all your life."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I am quite sure the second quote is from Chesterton and Father Brown. The first has the same tone and idea. Is it also Chesterton?

james said...

Yes to both.

james said...

Let's see. From the ratification of the Constitution with its anti-slavery compromise clause to the end of the Civil War was 77 years. From the end of the Civil War to now is 155 years. The nation has been twice as long without institutionalized slavery as with.
It has been 56 years since the passing of the Civil Rights Act and its explicit legal protections.
I think it is possible to distinguish the before and after for these transitions. I gather not everybody agrees.

Grim said...

While they were thus employed, Locksley led the knight a little apart, and addressed him thus:—“Deny it not, Sir Knight—you are he who decided the victory to the advantage of the English against the strangers on the second day of the tournament at Ashby.”
“And what follows if you guess truly, good yeoman?” replied the knight.
“I should in that case hold you,” replied the yeoman, “a friend to the weaker party.”
“Such is the duty of a true knight at least,” replied the Black Champion; “and I would not willingly that there were reason to think otherwise of me.”

engineerlite said...

I think you hit exactly the right note in concluding (for Christians), “go be a voice for the powerless.” This is the principle which can be generalized.

Keller’s paragraph about Advocacy under Biblical Justice expands on this saying, “While we are not to show partiality to any, we are to have special concern for the powerless. … “Protect the person who is being cheated from the one who is mistreating… foreigners, orphans, or widows…” Jeremiah is singling out for protection groups of people who can’t protect themselves from mistreatment the way others can.”

There are lots of ways to be powerless with poor, widow, and orphans being the common biblical categories. This view allows one to seek impartiality in treatment of all, without simply replacing one power structure for another. Preventing mistreatment can unite a community; competing to exchange power structures promotes division.