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Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Justice of Horton

Do you think that there is a way that things are supposed to be?  I don't mean a belief in the "best of all possible worlds" that Voltaire liked to make fun of, I mean a sort of basic sense that some things are just right and that sometimes a situation is just wrong?
This is an elephant on a tree

One of my favorite children's books is Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss (one of my favorite children's authors). In Horton our hero, Horton the Elephant, agrees to "egg sit" for a lazy bird (Mayzie) who promptly takes off and vacations on the beach for several months leaving Horton on her nest. We see him suffer through increasingly unpleasant trials beginning with bad weather and going on to abandonment by his friends, abduction (along with the egg, nest, and tree) by hunters and finally abject humiliation. Throughout it all Horton says to himself "I meant what I said and I said what I meant; an elephant's faithful one hundred percent" and sticks to his commitment. Then, (spoiler alert) at the climax, Mayzie stumbles upon him and the egg hatches. Seeing that it is hatching, Mayzie tries to re-claim her egg but when it breaks open, out flies... you guessed it... an elephant-bird! And Horton get to go home with a child while Mayzie pouts in a corner and everyone exclaims that "It should be, it should be, it SHOULD be like that!" - A sentiment with which I heartily concur. It should be like that.

Hard work should be rewarded, bad people should get their comeuppance, children should outlive their parents, the good should thrive. And all of that and so much more; all of the should be like is what I mean by the word "justice".
I think that the idea of justice has been misunderstood for a while now, especially in American culture. It is not so much that we have gotten it completely wrong as that we have narrowed it too much. Most people I talk to want to use "justice" as a synonym for "fairness" or, if they see a distinction, they will treat justice as a more powerful or deeper version of fairness. Thus someone might say "It wasn't only fair, it was just". But while fairness is often a part of justice, it is by no means the whole of it. To be fair is merely to treat everyone equally, to be just is to treat each person and every thing the way that person or thing should be treated. And that treatment will only be fair (though technically "fair" has experienced its own unfortunate devolution over the last several hundred years) if it treats them all equally.
Totally didn't see this coming

Here is where the practical problem comes into play: it is only possible to be just if you have some idea of how thing ought to be. To be just is to say "this should be like that" and to then go about trying to make it so. Neither a determinist (who thinks that all things already are as they have to be), a modernist/non-supernaturalist (who has no grounds for claiming that there is any such thing as should be only what, in fact, is) nor a post-modernist (who doesn't think anyone has a right to talk about what should be for anyone else and besides how sure are they that there really is a this or a that  anyway) can be just.

Now please don't misunderstand me, I am not saying that those folks can't be virtuous, kind, fair or egalitarian. They are often all of those things. In fact, they are often very just - I would point especially to the social gospel of the liberal Christian, modernist movement of the last century and the "social justice" movement so popular among contemporary post-moderns as wonderful and encouraging examples of people loving justice. What I am saying is that those worldviews give them no grounds for believing in or even really understanding justice. To the extent that they have it, they have it by tradition, by uncritical conscience or by divine Grace.
  But it takes a pre-modern (eastern or western) to get justice.

A little history: the basic concept of justice in the west seems to have originated with Socrates. Plato's most famous book The Republic is entirely concerned with the question "what is justice" (the Greek word was dikaiosune). After quickly demolishing arguments that justice is "the will of the strong over the weak" (a view that stayed pretty well dead until Nietzsche came along) and the slightly stronger claim that it is "doing right by friends and harm to enemies", Socrates spends most of the book defending the idea that to be just is to act and become in accordance with the way things are, or put another way, to love the good and conform to it. (He then has a lot of ideas about how that can be accomplished and a really unfortunate extended-analogy about the soul and the city-state which has given rise to some misconceptions about his political views; but I won't get into all that right now). But from then, right up until the enlightenment, the idea that justice was conforming to the way things should be was the dominant understanding of the west.

Over in the east, Lao Tzu seems to have independently come up with the same basic idea. He was able to speak much more simply about "life in conformity with the Tao". Confucius then watered it down a bit by trying to get really practical by providing elaborate descriptions of what different 'tao-conforming' lives would look like. In both cases, eastern and western pre-modernism seems to have independently agreed that justice requires first an understanding of how things should be and then an attempt to conform oneself to that understanding.

Lao Tzu
Finally, in the contemporary world, justice is most clearly talked about by natural law and virtue ethicist (who are mostly going back to the pre-modern thinkers). Most notable would be CS Lewis who showed, rather convincingly, in The Abolition of Man that belief in the natural law, the Tao, is necessary for humanity to remain human. The love of that Tao and the attempt to conform to it is justice.

But why is justice so important? Well, a sense of justice implies a vision of how things should be, and without that, I can't help but think that there will be a great deal of drifting about without any real direction. Quite practically, it is justice that tells me that I cannot do just anything to accomplish a good goal, for a world in which one problem is fixed and I have been corrupted by a terrible act (even in the service of a good goal) is not the way things should be. It is justice that tells me things can be better and it is justice that urges me to make them better. It is by justice that I recognize injustice. Justice is the eye of the conscience; what I do blindly by conscience is illuminated by justice.
Justice is  Badass 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

In Defense of... Sadness?

 Yesterday I spoke at church about Good Friday. I had plenty to say about the day and the event it commemorates but one particular item seemed worth discussing on Heaven and Earth Questions. I am terrible at mourning. I am great at Easter. On Easter we celebrate God's victory over death. We celebrate the greatness of God and the ressurection of the God-Man. We celebrate the return of Jesus. Easter is wonderful and Easter is easy Easter is about celebration. But Good Friday is much more confused. On Good Friday there is some celebration; we celebrate being rescued from death in its many forms. But for Christians Good Friday is also a day for sadness. 
   We believe (yes I really do believe that the following is true) that that in order to rescue us from the death and brokenness of the world, God had to die. On Good Friday we remember the deicide that we necessitated. And as horrific as deicide (the killing of God) is, for most of the people in my community it is even more horrific. You see, being a Christian is about holding to certain propositions as true (check out Mere Christianity for the best listing, explanation and defense of these propositions I have ever run across). But I, and many people I know are interested in something else as well. We are invested in knowing the person who is Jesus. We are just nuts enough to think that we know Him in that tanimak sense. We each have a relationship with him. So for us, Good Friday is a day for remembering that our choices and actions brought about the horrific death of this person we love desperately. Good Friday is a day where we remember that sometime recently we as much as shouted "give us Barrabas" as we insisted on bringing a little more deaths or pain into this world - death and pain He died to heal. 

  Good Friday is about being loved but it isn't exactly fun. 

  Now I grew up in Turkey and over there they know how to mourn. They don't avoid it like the plague, like a mental illness. They embrace it when it's time comes. But we Americans, even those of us of a more pessimistic bent, seem fascinated by the positive. I certainly am. I know that I full on hate being sad and I don't think anybody wants to be depressed (including the Turks).
   The thing is, I don’t think that mourning and being depressed are at all the same thing. Depression is an emotional manifestation of despair (though the person suffering from it has not necessarily actually reached a despairing conclusion), more precisely, it is the proper emotional correlative of the cognitive state we call despair. To despair is to acknowledge that there is no hope, no meaning in a situation or, in its final sense, life.

Now sadness is the proper emotional correlative of the cognitive state of mourning. And to mourn is to acknowledge that something wrong has happened, that some part of life or even life as a whole is in a broken state. To mourn is to recognize injustice (just made a mental not to do a blog on justice). The distinction is vital because on the one hand, to despair is itself a great evil. To see the world as empty, meaningless and hopeless is to miss-see the cosmos and to devalue all other people. The old saw that ”so one as there is life, there is hope” is true on a cosmic scale. For a Christian despair is entirely absurd, it would mean giving up on God. So there is no proper context for despair and its correlative emotion: depression*. But there is a proper context for mourning. Injustice, the brokenness of the universe does happen, all is not healed yet and it is right for us see that, to acknowledge it. I’m still not going to go seeking the experience. I don't want to go find reasons to be sad. But when the time comes, as it does on Good Friday, to ”weep with those who weep” I hope that I will be able to. Maybe I will be better at it next year.
  *Please don’t read this as a slam on people who are suffering from depression, they are dealing with one of the injustices for which we are to mourn. The brokenness of the universe has caused them to feel inordinately, they have not made a bad choice but become subject to the weakness or our bodies and brain chemistry.