On Justice

Dan Winiarski entertains some ideas about the current appeals for “justice”

Over the last few years, the term “Justice” has become far to ill-defined and confused with other virtues and ideas. Words mean things, and if we play fast and loose with their meanings, we inhibit our ability to communicate, diagnose problems, and identify the best solutions.

For example, I’ve heard justice defined subjectively and nebulously as “making things right.” What things? Right according to whom? Making them how?

He goes on to offer his own definition: “Justice is people getting what they deserve, whether good or bad, and whether we personally like the outcome or not.”

But that begs a question: Is “justice” something that can be defined? The same nit-picking used here can be applied to the preferred definition: “deserve”? what standard is that? what order? who sets the terms, etc. Or for that matter, how do we determine “good or bad”? The moment I push the concept it goes all squishy.

Rather than speak abstractly of “justice” why not biblically? Justice takes place in the presence of a wrong, thus the psalmist cries out for justice for the poor. Justice is about the ordering of our relationships so the reflect and participate in God’s interaction with us. The very care God has for the poor and weak leaves us exposed:we are sinners. This brings to the other sense of justice, that God acts to restore a relationship with us, unilaterally. That decision is profoundly displayed in the crucifixion, and vindicated on Easter morn.



Conservatives and racism

Rod Dreher gives voice to an understandable opinion, this in his continuing discussion of shitholes, domestic and foreign.

It really ticks me off how many (but not all) liberals insist on inserting race into these discussions and calling conservatives racist (or at least implying that we are racially insensitive). As if people of all races and classes are not capable of living virtuously, and to believe that they are is a sign of bigotry.

What Dreher appears to be seeking is a middle ground, one that is difficult to get at (or more properly, to hear). Is there a center right view on race that can be heard, or must it all devolve into thinly veiled contempt?

Let’s just say the conservative political class does not make it easy.

At both the national and certainly at the state level, this is a group that at its best comes across as indifferent, or silent all the while framing policies questions with “dog whistles.” At worst, of course, this class doesn’t advance the dog whistle legislation, but something worse, something that can be seen as actually harming minorities. Our state house dockets are filled with both approaches. So really, one cannot blame those outside from looking and wondering if in fact this political class actually sees minorities.

And what is the alternative? The left often offers a politics of performing, of posturing — a reaction noted by Sam Murrell.  The twin posturing can easily become a sort of shadow dance, where real the performance (or the glee of not recognizing) mirror each other, in a word, a profoundly white conversation. What goes missing between these two political posturings are the voices of conservative and middle of the road blacks. It’s not that there exists a valid conservative take on the problems of race, but rather that it so rarely gets heard amid the noise. This productive middle gets obscured, or pigeon-holed, or dismissed.This is the class that goes to church, the educators and entrepreneurs, a natural conservative class and yet the political conservatives? Too rarely do they cross the line to engage, or to let these voices impact theirs. Too often they choose their own rhetoric, drop the ball, and  too often, prove unreliable.

Why I No Longer Participate in Racial Reconciliation Services
Povety as Culture


Man of the Hour

26brooksWeb-superJumbo-2This is nothing like the attention Paul VanderKlay pays, but the man of the cultural moment certainly seems to be Jordan Peterson. As some one outside the moment (and basically wanting to remain that way), I found Patrick Mitchell’s review of Peterson useful. Not surprisingly, David Brooks connects some of the dots.

Parents, universities and the elders of society have utterly failed to give many young men realistic and demanding practical wisdom on how to live. Peterson has filled the gap.

What strikes me as particularly relevant to the age is the insistence on fundamental truths about humanity, not just about our gender tendencies, but our seeking meaning as a necessary condition of our life — that’s a variant of Abraham Heschel’s approach, that we possess the moral duty to explain the wonder, the ineffable we encounter. Both Brooks and Mitchell highlight the realist, the tragic sense of life, this too, coming as an echo of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Ours is a conservative age, if not a reactionary one, and in that framework Peterson provides the essentialist and ethical voice necessary for its navigation, a voice with strong appeals to conservatives. The same voice, its fundamental humanism also offers the alternative to the tawdriness of expression and sloppy ideas that marks so much of the conservative ruling class.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules
The Jordan Peterson Moment
photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star, via Getty Images


Habits of Mind

Whom communities vote for is largely structural in character; we can think of it as a sort of central tendency. So university towns lean one way, traditional CRC communities  consistently lean another way, and President or no, there is little reason for them to vote differently. The variability will be in their enthusiasm expressed in voting, funding, and volunteering – the stuff of retail politics.

For the Dutch community, who they vote for is less important than minding their own understanding of what holding political office means. This comes to the fore because of  the President and his highly transactional value system which corrodes approaches based on principle, or for that matter, custom. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Dutch involvement in politics in Michigan has been the willingness to hold to broader goods than just partisanship. At its best, this resulted in a more rounded, more three-dimensional approach to politics and the societal problems politics sought to address.  This value system with its sense of the public good is something that should be nurtured, even as the approaches that would corrode it (e.g.. a certain President, or a tendency to identity politics) be resisted.

Start planning for the post-Trump era.

When the Evangelical Church provides such support, it can seem fair  to state (of the CRC)


Well, maybe.

Yet there’s a big difference between going 80% for the President the way Evangelicals have gone, and 55%, the more common margin for religiously observant generally (including the mainline!). But the voting support may not be the real problem.

As the President exemplifies in person the man of appetite, the sort regularly denounced in Scripture, the critical stance for the church is to be less concerned with the President per se, than with how we offer critique. The so-called Realist stance corrodes our long-term credibility, where we exchange our moral credibility for political “wisdom”. This latter stance is always seductive since it also seems to be the path of power, of shrewdness. And yet,   the Gospel is not about “Realism” so much as it is about the possibility of hope, that is, with the work of the Spirit.

Last, are we (the CRC) those people who voted for this POTUS? There’s evidence that we are not, or at least not fully on board. Few actually voted for the President, but instead cast votes for the possibility of movement on the further limiting of abortion, or on the hope of a judiciary that can serve as a bulwark, etc.  This is understandable at least in terms of “the least of two bad alternatives” or “get what you can.” Understandable. But a year later we need to reckon with other data: the corruption of this administration, the violation of norms etc., pose a long-term challenge for a Christian response – it’s not just policies that we may (or may not)object to, but a cultural revitalization. Looking ahead to a post-Trump era and our neighbor’s doubts about us, we will have plenty on our plate. And until then, we will also need to speak.

Coming to America?

At Calvin in Common, Clayton Libolt is concerned with a variant of the Christian Right, the Dominion theology with its vision of a thoroughly Christian America, a state where biblical norms are explicitly enacted. The theology was developed by R. J. Rushdoony in the middle of the century and has taken root in some parts of conservative Protestantism. Well, and Texas. While the explicit teaching sounds whacky, there is also a softer side, with its appeals to “creation order” — could  this be the creeping future for America and more specifically for the Christian Reformed Church? Libolt captures the question in a quote from  from David Brockman in the Texas Observer:
To be clear, I’m not saying that religion has no place in the public square. Far from it: religious persons have just as much right as anyone else to advocate laws and policies that line up with their beliefs and values. Government officials, however, are in a different position. No, they don’t have to “walk away from what they believe,” as Patrick puts it. Their religious beliefs can inform their personal morality in office — don’t lie, don’t steal, and so on — and give them comfort and hope or motivate them to serve others. But they can’t make policy based on those beliefs. Government officials have a duty to uphold the Constitution, not to enact their personal religious convictions. They are obliged to serve all of the people, not just members of the officials’ own religious community.
I am a lot more blasé about this. The so-called “soft-dominionism” looks an awful lot like American religious nationalism, a perennial theme at least since the post-WWII era and its emergence in plain folk culture of Orange County. The SoCal origin (home of Rushdoony, too) explain the sort of fundamentalism Mark Noll identifies in Paul’s post, although Christian nationalism was, at least in origin, engaged in the great ideological war against Communism.
Thus, I am more inclined to ask Joe Stalin’s question, “so how many divisions have they got?” In terms of practical politics, the Religious Right does nothing without an alliance with Catholics, and here the dominionist political theology falters. Our “soft doiminionists” and their followers are simply useful idiots for the harsh, hard-right agenda of the economic rightists. Sure, they can have their prayer meeting with the President, even lay hands on him, but the real social agenda will advance and pretty much betray the believers. Oddly, though, such betrayal will likely only intensify their politically idiosyncratic views.
Even in Texas, I suspect the internal contradictions doom dominioinism, even of the soft variety. As dominionism shares the same sort of political architecture of conservative Islam, it is difficult to privilege Christian communities without also empowering Muslim ones. Thus the soft dominionist must either be revealed as a hard liner — a political dead end – or confront the Islamophobia of the supporting religious community.  The Muslim protests in Texas have already shown how far THAT would go. In the end, I rather think the religious communities will forgo the full Christian freedom schtick if it means granting power to their Muslim neighbors.
And can we so easily dismiss, the “gosh, I’d like to” demurral (I’d love to support you, but the Bible…)? At present, we need something like this appeal to conscience if we are to rid ourselves of this President; well-meaning Republicans will have to find that backbone and say in effect, “gosh I’d like to go along, but….” Think of how one starts moving folk like Sen Ben Sasse.

On the pursuit of social justice

The folks at Returning Church highlight Jacob Brunton for his attack on The Gospel Coalition as Marxist. Once one wipes up the coffee off the desk. Social Justice is rejected in preference for “charity” which is seen as an emblem of grace.

 if charity is a picture of the grace of God in the gospel, then what message are we sending about the grace of God, and about the gospel, when we preach that charity is deserved? Answer: We are teaching that God’s grace is, likewise, deserved.

What Brunton gets right is that the questions of poverty, and of response to social need are not defined by the person. The act of beneficence is important, but there’s more. Social need can and often is created by relationships, it is invariably political, in fact a matter of justice. This is the reality of power. 

The widow, the poor look to the king to remedy their situation; they are institutionally at the short end, taken advantage of. So the consideration of social justice is less about mercy than about the ruler exercising proper (and righteous) power. The righteous king exercises authority (justice, mispat) on behalf of the poor, the weak, the vulnerable to protect their claims and their standing.

To be trinitarian, the royal office is enabled by the Spirit, made possible by the Son’s sacrifice. The Cross and Resurrection have turned authority into something more ‘provisional’, into something like servanthood. Provisional authority does two important things: it allows us to fail, we can make mistakes; and it removes the absolute or polarized ideas, left and right — this royal authority listens.

The challenge of social justice is too often that we have not thought deeply enough about it, but settled only for the ethical scorecard, a zero-sum of winners and losers. Social justice as a trinitarian action gives a social dimension, of covenant keeping, extending the covenant blessings to others, acting to establish a better model of God’s covenant with us.