Posted on | August 4, 2010 | 20 Comments
There has been an uptick in the amount of stories about Christianity of late, but it’s probably James Clark’s utterly weird “Why Marijuana Decriminalization Should Be a Christian Issue” that is the proximal source of ire driving this post, which argues that James Clark is making a questionable moral argument in an ethical context.
First, let me start by re-defining two words in support of my argument: ethics and morals. These words are defined in a circular fashion. I’d like to break that slightly, so that, while admitting some overlap, we admit that there is a degree to which morality and ethics may not be equivalent.
This ends up helping the analysis significantly. Ethics become something that has a legal, secular, objective character. If behavior stands up court, it can be asserted as ethical, by default. Obviously, ethics can vary somewhat by location, as you enter Virginia and get ticketed for having a radar detector. However, for the most part, the ethical realm corresponds with areas of intellectual debate and scientific inquiry. No one has trouble decrying landmines, however they were raised.
Morals are subjective. Where they don’t overlap with ethics, they are likely to be religious in nature. What you did in Vegas may have been completely ethical, but if you don’t change your evil ways, baby, you’ll end up where the torture never stops. You may think that a ham & cheese sandwich is immoral; it’s all lunch to me.
Now we have a dichotomy where it is possible to separate ethical acts with which one disagrees, and view them through a lens of libertarian indifference. Also, that moral bin where we go beyond the provably correct in the mathematical sense to “I know I’m right”, can be set aside. If you claim to espouse my moral affirmations, those of New Testament Christianity, then I’ll cheerfully tell you all about them. If you don’t, I’ll communicate them non-verbally, in a positive and hopefully persuasive way.
We cheat Christ and each other and the Church when we catechize poorly, or when we approach the Supernatural with superficiality; when we stop applying thought to it.
Forty years of sloppy, empty elementary catechesis during concurrent social revolution and generational upheaval was a bad choice for the churches, who now reap what they have sown.
What does “catechize” mean, exactly? There is the Bible. You prayerfully read it, study it, consult the older and wiser about it. While much has been written since the Revelation of Saint John, and is worth reading for historical and didactic value, there really is no substitute for the Real Thing.
If there has been any indirect good wrought by the events of the last decade, it’s been to show that there really isn’t need for those serious about Christ to view each other as foes, even if their notion of morality doesn’t line up exactly. Given a question X, you’re going to get an answer rooted rather directly in Ref A, the Bible, out of me. Others needing to inject this or that other source or tradition will receive the most loving patience I can muster.
Biblical exegesis is a minimalist affair. Who is speaking, to whom, when, for what purpose, and what is said, are crucial questions. When we come to the Sermon on the Mount, to drop an example, we have Jesus teaching people how to deal with each other and God. In particular, we DO NOT HAVE a political treatise. If you flip to the end of any of the Gospels, you find that Jesus, while descended from David, had exactly zero interest in running for office. Jesus’ teachings are substantially moral in nature: to the extent their analog can be found in other religious systems, you can call them ethical, too. However, massaging them into some kind of Social Justice Doctrine, and then legislating that in a secular, ethical way, really over-achieves. This is because the units of analysis has exceeded the scope of the actual teachings, and, perhaps unwittingly, lost a crucial feedback element.
Units of Analysis
Units of analysis are something you hear of more in an IT context, so let’s get rid of the jargon. What are some of the crucial items you can actually find in the Bible? People, families, assemblies. Sure, the Old Testament talks about Israel as a whole, but I’d contend that no unit above a single church is addressed in the New Testament. As far as my own Baptist church is concerned, accusations of heresy for acknowledging no other authority save Christ are both interesting and a badge of honor. Hugs and kisses to all my high church friends. Please criticize me where I fall short of the Biblical standard. For example, Rule 5 Sunday posts are edgy at best. If I didn’t think it valuable to laugh at recreational Puritanism, I’d probably veer right into it, believe it or not.
So, beyond my local church, which is a Biblical construct, I have problems. Christ died for “the church”, but the notion of a “Universal Church” is one that gives me pause. Christ explicitly died for individuals. Every single, wretched one of us, even a chief sinner like your writer. Thus, I find a term like “Christian Nation” oxymoronic. Yes to Christians, yes to nations, but does that gas really exist as a solid at this pressure and temperature? When you look at the people using the term, and their motives for it, it gets worse. The United States may have a Constitution informed by some Judeo-Christian principles, but that’s as excited as I get. I rate my love for the Bible about an order of magnitude greater than the Constitution. The Bible is the basis for morality, and the Constitution for ethics and government. Let’s be as clear as the Venn diagram above where the libertarian principles of the one end, and the religious principles of the other pick up.
I should add that, while serving as a member of the military, the Laws of War govern ethical conduct in war. Let us pursue peace, for that is a great moral driver with much overlap in the ethical department. However, as a military member, there may be enemy combatants falling under Rules of Engagement who meet with violence, even death. While causing such should never be a source of joy, I’d not feel myself immoral. Those of a pacifistic nature will decry this argument as a pure crock of fertilizer, which I understand. They’re welcome to their luxuries.
When some attempt to leverage the moral heft of Christianity for some ethical attempt to improve society, well, consider your results. Within the local church, there is a feedback loop that tells the drunkard to get off the bottle and be a Christian, man, and father. So that his sons understand manhood, and don’t treat their sexuality as a video game. So that their daughters understand that motherhood is the job of jobs, and that a career, while fine, represents a bit of a distraction.
Government occupies the ethical middle, and cannot afford the necessary moral instruction. Neither in the US, with its explicit Establishment Clause, or, say, Europe, where secular Humanism is a smashing success for the Devil.
Last week, the Economist published an article illustrating a widespread failure of American Christianity. Entitled “Rough Justice” with the subheading “America locks up too many people, some for acts that should not even be criminal,” the article detailed the practice of mass incarceration and revealed some startling facts: 1 in 100 American adults is living behind bars. When we narrow the field to young black men, it’s 1 in 9. Put another way, we have incarcerated 1 percent of our neighbors.
OK, so, how has Christianity failed? Is Christ’s atonement no longer effective? Does the Holy Spirit no longer convict the sinner? Some of Christianity’s finest moments (Acts, for example) happened in the joint. These statistics are fine for those with a numeral fetish, but, if Jesus died for us all individually, why the roll-up? Don’t we all need to confess individually?
Our war on drugs is one of the leading contributors. Those who insist that the United States is a “Christian nation” would be hard-pressed to find evidence for it in our nation’s drug policy, which condemns millions of our neighbors to be warehoused behind bars for nonviolent offenses. The Economist article brings to light a systemic denial of Christian love and compassion, particularly toward those struggling with addiction.
But on the same day the Economist published “Rough Justice,” something else happened that few would immediately associate with the biblical command to love our neighbor: the California Affiliates of the ACLU endorsed Proposition 19, the ballot initiative to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Christian communities looking for a smarter, more compassionate, and more successful way forward in fighting drug addiction would do well to consider the merits of marijuana decriminalization.
The “war on drugs” is a secular undertaking. Those who know me know that I haven’t even been legally drunk in better than a decade. This is a purely moral choice; there isn’t anything unethical about alcohol. Yet how do you claim to be a Theologian without mentioning the notion of the body as the Temple of the Spirit? Exactly how blotto should you ever be? But, if you want everyone to get stoned on marijuana, I guess thinking about the basis of the faith could be problematic.
Skipping forward. . .
Communities of faith have historically offered a different response to drugs, leading the charge when it comes to meaningful treatment for addiction. At the core of the Christian tradition is the belief that redemption is available to all, which is precisely why the two greatest commandments are so alike: loving God with all your heart is like loving your neighbor as yourself because God’s love is equally available to you and your neighbor, no matter who you are or what you have done. Many Christian communities bring this conviction to action when it comes to drug addiction, opening their doors to clinics and 12-step programs and providing direct services like addiction treatment and counseling — programs rooted in the value of compassion.
Yet that value of compassion, the belief in redemption, and the love of our neighbors as ourselves are all conspicuously absent from the practice of mass incarceration, the criminal justice system’s answer to the problem of drug addiction. While treatment programs work towards healing, reconciliation, and empowering people with the tools to build a healthy life, incarceration only puts those goals farther out of reach.
While you’re perusing liberal Theologians, do investigate Love, Power, and Justice. What you’ve just put forward here is the typical, spineless love minus justice formulation, which equals a foppish sentimentality. The New Testament actually teaches respect and deference to secular authorities. Also, a read of 1st John shows that, over time, sinful behavior (e.g. smoking dope) should have a steep negative slope in the life of a Christian. Unfortunately, the notion that the US is a “Christian nation” in any more than a superficial sense is just completely daft. How many US citizens can (or, for that matter, should, in an ethical sense) know the difference between John and 1st John? Really.
Further on. . .
A profoundly different response to sin is modeled by the Incarnation. In becoming human, Christ entered a broken world and took the burden of sin upon himself. He embraced sinners with open arms, using fellowship and love to offer a way out of sin and a path toward healing.
He also ripped the establishment Pharisees (and if the sandal fits, I hope it’s not too constricting) a new one on a systematic basis, for scuttling the Word of God in favor of a cheap, bureaucratic imitation. There is no more salvation to be had in legalizing dope than there was to be had from the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem that Jesus overthrew. How exactly you confuse non-medical marijuana usage with spiritual healing is unclear. Is there a Great Awakening occurring in California of which no one has heard, or is it just a bunch of stoners?
“Love your neighbor as yourself” should not be seen as a personal virtue to be checked at the door of the county courthouse. Christian communities already provide perhaps the nation’s largest network of drug-addiction programs rooted in compassion and love. It’s time they advocated for public policies that align with those same values.
“Love your neighbor as yourself” is a moral commandment. There. Is. Absolutely. No. Ethical. Way. To. Legislate. This. It really only makes sense among those who agree to it as a moral obligation. I know what it means in my church. Friends in the blogosphere can judge whether I know what it means there. Also, within my family. As a general behavior mode, my neighborhood. I’ll even give you the roadways, where I drive in a generally low-key fashion. But the notion that we can somehow generalize beyond the local church with this is a scary and creepy misrepresentation of Christianity, in my opinion. Especially when you’re talking about tax dollars and government programs.
It’s bad enough at a State level, where much is deemed ethical that I find immoral, but at least I retain a right to depart. When we speak of the Federal government, the libertarian minimum seems best, for there is no escape from the immoral.
A round of apologies to all those whom I’ve explicitly or implicitly offended. We’ll have eternity to ponder to what degree I’m off-base in any of this analysis. Anyone desiring a serious, positive, Biblically-based debate on any of this is welcome to email me. There is no qualification of my own: Heaven forbid I make anything up. Sound criticism is welcomed.
Aside: Nancy Pelosi. Really? Really?
(Again, this is a Smitty post. The degree to which Stacy McCain agrees with any of this development is unknown.)