In Plato’s Republic, one of the central questions is “What is justice?” In a dialogue focused on getting at what the good (or beautiful, or excellent) city (the kallipolis) looks like, Socrates and his compatriots attempt to get at justice. It begins as early as Book I, when Socrates attempts to question his way into people’s definitions.
One replies that justice is to keep one’s word and to pay one’s debts. Not content with that, Socrates probes further and discovers that this man’s real definition is to give to everyone what they deserve. For example, this definition of justice demands that you do good by your friends and evil by your enemies. Still further, a man named Thrasymachus puts forth the proposition that justice is the “advantage of the stronger.” This sort of justice, dikē, has to do solidly with power above all things. And that’s just in Book I. Plato spends most of the book talking about what justice is and is not and he wrestles with the question of how justice can be advantageous when the unjust man often seems to get the greater reward. Read the rest of this entry
The separation of Church and State is something near and dear to the heart of the Baptist tradition. Whether you appeal to Anabaptist connections or not, it is a definite and dominant stream of thought within the Baptist tradition and I think it is one of the most valuable things Baptists can bring to the ecumenical table. This teaching is central to much of what I say about the Christian and his or her political life and the involvement of the Church in the public square. For this reason, I wanted to spend some time this week, given the topic, and flesh out where that idea comes from so we can better understand how it affects other propositions I will make later this week. Read the rest of this entry
“For even if the good is the same for one person and for one city, that of the city appears to be greater, at least, and more complete both to achieve and to preserve; for even if it is achieved for only one person that is something to be satisfied with, but for a people or for cities it is something more beautiful and more divine. So our pursuit aims at this, and is in this way political.”
Aristotle in his book of such a name describes Politics at the center of ethics. When he speaks of virtue, he begins with the assumption that the human is a social or political animal. We are unavoidably political. Was one of the students I worked with at Samford a few weeks ago recently paraphrased Pericles: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” While Pericles is speaking specifically of those politics of which you are probably thinking, Aristotle was not necessarily (not all the time). Politics, in a classical sense, is more than what goes on in capitals and legislatures. Politics is about how humans try to figure out how to live together. It is in this framework of community that Aristotle posits we work out ethics.
I almost constantly write about the Christian’s involvement in politics (specifically in the United States, my particular environment, as Athens was that of Pericles), and I have been known to be very isolationist in my tendencies. For a decent bit of time, I thought that the Christian had nothing to do with politics — separation of Church and State to the extreme. And it was not due to some spiritual dualism like that which justifies many policies of so-called Christian politics. I found it dangerous and subversive to the purposes of the Church and the allegiance of the Christian. However, such an extreme is not a tenable position in a democracy as much as it might square with the writings of St. Peter and St. Paul. Read the rest of this entry
This week is a pivotal one on the United States’s calendar. In 1776, this so-called ‘great experiment’ was begun. A group of determined individuals sat down and one of them penned a statement that made revolutionary claims about the human condition and, consequently, human governance. ”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” reads the Declaration of Independence, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” What kind of statement is this one? I spent a week in June at Samford University working at the Great Ideas Summer Institute talking about these ideas. There are several problematic questions raised by just this sentence, we discovered.
Who is “we”? Nowadays, Americans like to romanticize it and think that it refers to every person in the United States, all Americans, but that is simply not the historical case. There were dissenters and royalists, first of all, but there were also legions of women, slaves, and minorities who could not be included in this seemingly all-inclusive “we.”
What does it mean for something to be “self-evident”? Who declares what is and sis not self-evident? If there are such self-evident truths, why do they need to be declared again and again … and again? The self-evidence of the truths purported in the Declaration remain the American ideal (at least, that is the hope), but it is one of which Americans must continuously remind themselves. Why? Because, at least from looking at American history, they do not appear to be so obvious.
What does it mean to be “created equal”? Such a claim runs contrary to significant streams of Western thought. Plato himself would have scoffed at such an idea, and his influence upon Western thought looms undeniably large. When certain people possess different degrees of ability in many different areas (the most disturbing of which is the intellect), how are we supposed to call them created equal? Equality does not seem to be self-evident. From where does its grounding and support come? Where is the basis for such governance?
Is it in these “certain unalienable rights”? Where does such a claim originate? It is easy to appeal to some holy text or divinity to support such a claim (as Jefferson to his deist “Creator”), but our current condition does not seem to allow for that. The rejection of the metanarrative leaves us in a tight spot, so to speak. What does this document (or a later descendant, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) mean if we have no authority to back it up? When authority lies in the “consent of the governed, where do rights reside? Hannah Arendt aptly points out that if these rights are devised from the hands of human beings, what is to stop their creators from taking them away?
Those kind of rights are far from “unalienable.” Read the rest of this entry